The other day was my first time to roam around Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, to celebrate the eve of Chinese New Year. The sights were a vivid red in every corner, from lanterns to red envelopes to charms to shirts. The sounds were a loud repertoire of lion and dragon dances and powerful drums, plus the unnerving explosions of firecrackers. The overcrowded stretch of Ongpin street was full of vendors selling lucky fruits, vegetables, accessories and sweets. A lot of shoppers and spectators patiently made their way through narrow spaces of the street by huge vans, taxis and trikes trying to pass by that trickling traffic of both people and vehicles. They were all there to follow the tradition of celebrating and bringing luck and prosperity.
That experience is an inadvertent context for an interesting word insight. As we were walking along the street, the word “prosperity” seemed to buzz around amid those never-ending dance of colors. There was a tree called prosperity tree, an artificial tree with red and orange leaves decorated with Chinese lanterns, red envelopes and gold coins. Prosperity cakes and other items were sold along the street. The Chinese New Year greeting Gong Xi FA Caimay also mean “May you be prosperous”. Prosperity is found at the heart of this festive celebration.
As this purely Chinese traditions has slowly become part of Filipino culture, prosperity has also become an important word. To be prosperous means to grow one’s business, to have lucky encounters and to have more money. For many Filipinos, my mother included, prosperity is perhaps the utmost value behind the insatiable interest on lucky charms, astrological readings and fortune telling. There is a strong desire to become materially wealthy, and these Chinese traditions and celebrations anchor this Filipino dream of prosperity.
But I was told that the word prosperity, at least in the Chinese meaning, does not just meant about money, wealth or luck. The greeting means “Congratulations on having more wealth/being prosperous” is not just about the material. In fact, the celebration of Chinese New Year is a reminder of an old mythology about a monster called Nian, who roamed around the town to steal food and grab children. It said that the celebration began for the people to appease the monster and ward him off the town through red color, cakes and firecrackers. The celebration was meant not just to bring prosperity but also to restore peace. This legend and the celebration and traditions born from it have deepen my understanding of the word prosperity.
Prosperity is not just for having more money or luck or wealth. Prosperity is for the spirit.
The next day was Chinese New Year, but I was not anymore on the streets. I was with my friends quietly doing a group work. We were trying to find the common ground that underlies the humanity’s problems we listed down: misery, poverty, political tyranny and crime. I thought that they seem to come from similar issues like scarcity or lack, or they can also be caused by misuse and abuse of power, neglect and disrespect. But I felt uneasy, for these options did not encapsulate the whole connecting theme. As I literally took a closer look, the theme came to be more obvious. The letters of the word prosperity floated from the letters of those words in that list. It was the common theme. My friends and I agreed that it was the absence of the sense of prosperity that have made all these crises a monster wreaking havoc in the world. But how will this sense of true prosperity help?
Again, I was brought to a powerful insight I had in the middle of last year. In a workshop my friend conducted, he asked the participants to pick a strip of paper with an insightful word written on it. What I picked was an interesting word: Prosperity. Before my mind’s eyes, I saw new words – pro + sperit. This is not the origin of the word, but as a word intuitive I saw a different meaning. The Chinese celebration has finally confirmed the insight I had for this word. Prosperity is not just for having more money or luck or wealth. Prosperity is for the spirit.
Our society has put its value on material and financial wealth too much to a point where we have lost our spirit. The spirit, spiritus, the breath of Life, this sense of the sacred and the divine, has been eclipsed out of our awareness in our race to become economically prosperous. We have forgotten this value of prosperity and at this point we struggle to fight off the monsters of our society. To be aware of prosperity is to return to the spirit, to acknowledge again its role in our economic progress. While Chinese traditions may have ancient cultural meanings, I believe we can see a timeless insight. We can celebrate again, bringing back this awareness of what prosperity is, of honoring the role of the spirit, the energy of life that is in all of us and in the world.