Back Society » In Vietnam, ‘Golden Babies’ Are Choking Public Services, Parents and One Another

In Vietnam, ‘Golden Babies’ Are Choking Public Services, Parents and One Another

The year is 2013. Linh lies awake in the attic bedroom of her cozy childhood home in Saigon. Tomorrow is her first day at primary school, and sleep doesn’t come easily with the all butterflies fluttering in her stomach. She’s worried, but mom assured her that she would be okay, because she is special.

The reality is, Linh is just as “special” as the other 110,708 friends in her Saigon cohort, who were born in 2007, the uber-auspicious Year of the Golden Pig. Every 60 years, it’s once again time for the "golden pig" to grace the Earth, supposedly bringing with its bedazzled snout and sparkling body an abundance of prosperity, success and familial glory. For ease of explanation, in this article I’ll assume that Gregorian years overlap with their lunar counterparts; though in most cases, the lunar system runs one or two months behind the solar calendar.

Vietnamese Astrology 101

After a millennium under Chinese occupation, Vietnam has inevitably adopted a significant portion of Chinese cultural traits into its local life. This could manifest in many forms, at many levels and occasions, from festive Lunar New Year shenanigans to more somber realities like sexism and an overwhelming emphasis on academic achievement. Of all these vestiges of Chinese culture in Vietnam, the adaptation of the Chinese zodiac is probably among the most benign and whimsical.

Any pop astrologer could recite the twelve animal signs of the Chinese zodiac with great ease: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Many Asian cultures also adopt this system, albeit with some contextual changes to fit with their own beliefs and natural biodiversity. Vietnam replaces the ox and rabbit with water buffalo and cat, respectively, thanks to the latters' abundance in the Southeast Asian country. Koreans opt for sheep instead of goat while Kazakhs, bewilderingly, prefer snail to dragon.

Much like western astrological star signs or Myers-Briggs personality types, it’s completely healthy to indulge in the implications behind one’s zodiac animal every once in a while, as long as they’re taken with a grain of salt. Of course, a population of Vietnamese parents will do the opposite and lunge deep into the astrological intricacies of their children’s birth year, month, date and even hour in order to secure the most auspicious offspring.

Chinese culture also prefers "dragon babies" to the rest. Image via The Economist.

There are several levels to Vietnam’s layers of childbirth superstition. The first layer of auspiciousness lies in the animals themselves, as George Orwell aptly puts: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Years of the dragon consistently experience baby booms across 12-year cycles due to the majestic reptile’s meaning in Asian culture; dragon is usually associated with power, fierceness and royalty. This explains the baby booms of 2000 and 2012, both dragon years.

After dragon, parents also have a fondness for farm animals such as water buffalo, goat, chicken and pig as they believe babies born during these years will adopt their patron animals’ docile nature, loyalty and fortitude. The bottom positions of the list fall to the rabbit, snake and tiger: rabbit and cat are thought to be skittish and easily discouraged while snake is the symbol for slyness and is thus frowned upon. The case of tiger, however, only applies to baby girls, as parents believe baby tigresses will grow up struggling to find a match that could handle her “temper.”

The Mystery of the Golden Pig

To unravel the mystery behind the elusive "golden pig," just skimming the meaning behind the animals is not enough, as years like 2007 only come once every 60 years, in accordance with the sexagenary cycle. Known in Chinese as ganzhi and Vietnamese as can chi, the sexagenary cycle is an ancient Chinese method of time-keeping that originated from the middle of the 3rd century CE. The word ganzhi, meaning stems and branches, refers to the two interwoven systems that determine the order of the years.

According to ganzhi, the order of the years in the cycle is determined by 12 earthly branches, which correspond with the 12 animals; and 10 heavenly stems represent the five classical elements — metal, wood, water, fire and earth — and whether their property is yin or yang. This creates 60 combinations of names for the years, in which each zodiac animal could take any of the five elemental forms and a yin or yang attribute. For example, 2018 is called Mau Tuat in Vietnamese, meaning it’s a year of the yang earth dog.

Among the elements, metal captures the heart of parents due to its association with gold and prosperity. In Vietnam, the word for metal as an element is “kim,” which also means money, boosting metal years’ desirability in astrological family planning. Therefore, years that begin with the two heavenly stems associated with metal — Canh (yang metal) and Tan (yin metal) — almost always make “golden” years. In recent history, 2000 (Canh Thin) encompassed two levels of luck as it was both a metal year and a dragon year. A golden year for superstitious parents but a logistical calamity for hospital administrators.

A summary of how the order of zodiac came to be and the sexagenary cycle.

The immense depth of ganzhi is impossible to go into within the constraints of one article, but in short, it represents the harmony between yin and yang, heaven and earth, the 12 animals and the five classical Chinese elements. Now, with the knowledge of the sexagenary cycle, we can determine that 2007 (Dinh Hoi) was the year of the yin fire pig, which — contrary to common beliefs — doesn’t have the usual quasi-prosperous ring that drives prospective mothers to immediate ovulation. Why?

Perhaps Linh is indeed special, because the meaning her birth year, Dinh Hoi, has legitimate historical significance instead of just being a numerical derivation. Since the beginning of time, Dinh Hoi has always been known as the year of the fire pig, until 627 CE. Ancient China had entered the early days of the Tang Dynasty after the short-lived Sui Dynasty. Wrecked by heavy taxation, ambitious wars and taxation projects, post-Sui China was in the midst of a dark era.

Emperor Tang Gaozu, who was credited with founding the Tang Dynasty, carried out a number of reforms during his reign, including lowering taxes, distributing land equally and abolishing the harsh existing system of law, among others. These policies worked, paving the way for his son Tang Taizong’s rule, which was widely considered to be China’s golden age when the country flourished economically and militarily. Because of this momentous prosperity, ancient Chinese started referring to the start of Taizong’s reign, 627 CE, as the year of the "golden pig" instead of the usual fire pig. This moniker stuck, and since then, Dinh Hoi years have been widely considered ultra-lucky years.

A chart showing the 10 heavenly stems (third row) and the 12 earthly branches


3. Giáp, Ất, Bính, Đinh, Mậu, Kỷ, Canh, Tân, Nhâm, Quý.

4. Tý, Sửu, Dần, Mẹo, Thìn, Tỵ, Ngọ, Mùi, Thân, Dậu, Tuất, Hợi.

The Golden Plague

While it’s fascinating to delve deeper into the thought process that prompts Vietnamese parents to go gaga over family planning, there is little — if any— scientific research to support the golden years’ positive effects on children. Most parents, beyond some arbitrary knowledge of perceived auspiciousness, can’t exactly pinpoint how birth years can benefit their children’s lives in tangible ways, such as improving school performance, intelligence, social connections or job prospects.

According to Nguyen Ba Minh, a researcher from the Vietnam Centre of Human Potential Research, in 40 years of researching and consulting eastern philosophy for couples, around 50% of parents with boys born in 2000, a “golden” dragon year, are either divorced or separated. Regarding the fate of those born in 1952, another dragon year, he shared: “Among my friends who were born during this year, many encounter a lot of hardships in life, few have achieved considerable success.”

Minh believes that the best years to conceive a child are not based on some celestial rules, but the household’s conditions: if parents are happy, healthy and financially stable, then their children will have a higher chance of being happy, healthy and successful in life. This notion might seem intuitive and commonsensical enough to take to heart; but, to churn out a “golden” baby, many parents are taking a gamble on everything, from wealth, time to even their own health.

It might take decades to gauge whether the parents’ family planning decisions actually bring about wealth and success: the children would have to graduate, get a job, invest in crypto-currencies, buy lottery tickets or establish a startup — you know, life events that are supposedly governed by luck. On the other hand, the detrimental effects of superstitious family planning can already be felt right from the moment the “golden” babies are born.

In 2003, year of the “golden” goat, Hanoi’s National Hospital of Obstetrics and Gynecology delivered a total of 14,000 babies in the first nine months, a staggering 3,000 more than in an average year. For the remaining three months, another 5,000 future mothers had already registered for the wait-list while the hospital only had 380 beds. This baby boom resulted in a bottleneck of resources, meaning two mothers had to share the same bed and a handful of doctors had to spread themselves thin to cater to hundreds of recuperating moms.

Dr. Nguyen Thi Thanh from the Hanoi Obstetrics & Gynecology Hospital observed that her patients came from a diverse range of backgrounds; however, they all shared a burning goal: pushing out a baby “goat” in 2003.

“Some families already have both genders, but they still wanted to get more. Another patient didn’t have good health, but she had to obey her family’s wishes,” Thanh elucidated. “Especially, there was a couple who were not ready to marry, but because they wanted a golden goat, they had a ‘shotgun’ wedding in the start of the year to prepare for a baby later. I don’t know if the kids will actually be successful when they grow up, but now everybody is miserable, from the moms to us.”

The More the Wearier

For children born in 2007 like Linh, the weight of the special once-every-60-year “golden” pig might already be crushing her chances at having a quality education. In 2013, Saigon’s public primary schools welcomed some 110,709 new first graders, most of whom were the products of the “auspicious pig” craze. That was an increase of 40,804 students compared to 2012, while the number of schools and classrooms remained relatively unchanged. District 9’s Office of Education and Training had to make use of facilities from local middle schools and high schools to accommodate the surge in first graders. In Go Vap District, school officials resorted to squeezing more students into classes with each fitting from 45 to 50 schoolchildren.

A typical first grade class in Vietnam.

Because the zodiac is cyclical in nature, these overcrowding problems don’t go away but tend to rear their obnoxious golden heads every time the child moves up a grade, until graduation. The only difference is that this time, middle school and high school administrations have to deal with them. A typical Vietnamese student has to spend 12 years in public schools: Grade 1 to 5 in primary school; Grade 6 to 9 in middle school; and Grade 10 to 12 in high school.

In 2018, high school admission officers have to bear the brunt of the "golden goats" of 2003, 109,000 of whom are starting Grade 10 in Hanoi, an increase of 24,000 students compared to last year. Similarly, the capital’s middle schools take in some 125,000 "golden pigs" (born in 2007), 11,000 more than last year’s Grade 6 cohort.

It might be uncomfortable to share school facilities with an overcrowded cohort, but the painful ramifications of superstitious family planning are most pronounced in the case of this year’s graduating class, the "golden dragons" of 2000.

Across levels of Vietnam’s public school system, the majority of students are divided based on household location, meaning as long as there’s a nearby school, they are likely to be able to secure a spot. This, however, culminates in a notoriously cutthroat university entrance examination when candidates across the country are allowed to pick and choose colleges according to their interest, regardless of location. This June, approximately 925,000 candidates sat for the exam, compared to 865,000 in 2017. In total, the "golden dragons" of 2000 had to fend off 60,000 more competitors than their immediate predecessors.

There’s always a possibility that Linh has been thriving with her 49 classmates. Where statisticians see overcrowded classes, she might see a host of new friends with whom to spend her wonderful five years of primary school. Where admission officers see a highly competitive entrance exam, she might have learned to love a chance to challenge herself. Much like how it’s difficult to tell for sure if the children’s fate is positively impacted by their birth year, supporting the other extreme of the argument is also a herculean task with just a macro perspective.

Perhaps, things would be much easier if parents just take heed of researcher Do Ba Minh’s advice: if parents are happy, healthy and financially stable, then their children will have a higher chance of being happy, healthy and successful in life.

Related Articles:

The Curious Case of Hai Phong's Nude Zodiac Sculptures

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