BEIJING -- When the Year of the Sheep gave way to the Year of the Monkey with last night's lunar new year, the only Chinese not celebrating may have been China's family planning czars.
In the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, every year is represented by a different animal, and each animal's nature bears on that year's events. The zoology at hand goes all the way back to the 12 species that bade farewell to the Buddha upon his departure from this world.
Sheep years aren't so hot. Sheep, a Chinese journalist recently explained, are animals "waiting to be slaughtered," and there were predictions this time last year of impending disaster. Sure enough, the worst floods in a century hit China in 1991.
Monkey years are fortuitous, however. Though sometimes deceptive, monkeys are among the most clever and charming of the 12 animals. So babies born in monkey years are quite blessed. And many Chinese, to the limited extent allowed, still take this to heart -- and to bed.
Which is about the last thing China needs. China will end up with at least 1.3 billion people by the year 2000, at least 100 million more than the official target set only two years ago. Despite record harvests in the 1980s, there are warnings of a coming food crisis.
Even without a monkey year, Chinese family planners already were swamped by Mao Tse-tung's final legacy.
Mao believed the more people, the better. A baby boom that began in the 1960s means record numbers of Chinese women will be of prime child-bearing age each year from now until 1996, presaging a potentially disastrous surge in births.
China's existing population problems are particularly evident every lunar new year.
The holiday -- called Spring Festival here -- is the only traditional Chinese celebration that's really been retained by the Communist regime, the only time of year that the average worker officially has several successive workdays off. It's as if Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day were all rolled into one intense week.
And half of China -- hundreds of millions of people -- seems to hit the road.
Migrant rural laborers leave cities for their homesteads. Peasants descend on their urban cousins. Divided families see each other for the first time in a year or more. Then all the journeys are reversed.
Despite official efforts to manage the untidy tide, the nation's transport system is annually overwhelmed -- with millions of travelers at one point or another ending up encamped in major cities' railroad stations.
It must be worth all the trouble. In lives commonly so drab as to be beyond the imagination of most Americans, the Spring Festival is the one time of year in which good will and good cheer seem to reign here. It's a time for forgiveness and new beginnings.
This is no small trick in what is often one of the world's most surly, discourteous and inertia-bound societies. And people make the most of it: Government and other offices started to wind down a week ago. They couldn't possibly deal with any bit of business for, say, another two weeks.
Of course, the bureaucrats in Beijing try to use the occasion for some good old socialist sloganeering. This year's theme: Emancipate your mind to further China's reforms. Translation: It's still OK to try to make as much money as possible -- in fact, it's necessary to speed up the money-making.
Money, China's only god now that Mao has long been laid to
rest, is not far from the heart of the holiday these days -- money particularly devoted to what turns out to be a movable feast.
The Communist Party's high command issued an order over the weekend banning cadres from using the holiday as an excuse to dine at public expense. But the warning, unlikely to be obeyed, came after the fact for officials at many state agencies and companies, who already have been gorging themselves at lavish banquets for the past week.
Average Beijingers shop days ahead of the holiday for special foods for their families' new-year feasts.
One local woman in her 50s, with four workers in her household, has spent more than $100 already, almost three months' average wages. Today she will host 20 or more guests in her tiny, dusty quarters, around a table that can sit no more than eight at a time.
The eating goes on for several days, with families making the rounds to their friends' houses dispensing gifts -- particularly "hong bao" for the children, little red packages containing cash.
In the 1950s, lately considered somewhat nostalgically by some here as a time when better values held sway, one "hong bao" might contain a mere 1 yuan note, now worth about 18 cents.
Nowadays, it's more like the equivalent of $9.
A middle-aged Beijing office worker calculated that last new year he gave out more than $175 to his friends' children. But his son received even more cash back. In anticipation of this year's holiday, he intends to make even better impressions by handing out crisp new bills for which he made a special trip to the bank.