Exactly one week before the Olympic torch was due to be lit in Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium, a total eclipse of the Sun yesterday darkened China's skies, a troublesome omen in a year marked by bad luck.
For the ancient Chinese, a solar eclipse was considered a dire warning, a portent of doom that would send the entire court into panic, prompting the emperor to avoid eating meat, shun the palace and read oracle bones for any hint of the disaster to come.
A total solar eclipse, which is caused when the Moon blots out the Sun by passing directly between it and Earth, had peasants in ancient China banging drums to scare off the dragon they believed was taking a bite out of the Moon.
China is run by sober-suited Marxist-Leninists these days, but the ancient belief that events like eclipses foreshadow trouble for the country's rulers runs deep. After a year of devastating natural disasters, people are more wary than ever, with astrologers warning of disturbances and older people particularly anxious.
However, young Chinese joined the planeloads of foreigners watching the spectacle from Beijing to the last outpost of the Great Wall and some people hoped that the eclipse would ultimately prove beneficial, signalling the end of a bad year.
"The eclipse is a natural phenomenon. I know it was also said to mean bad luck for our nation in old times. But I prefer to think it means the end of bad luck," said Zhou Anming. "China has had a lot of accidents. I think it is the end. It should be the end. We can go on better in future I hope."
China is full of superstitions, both innocent and portentous – and not even the five Olympic mascots, known as the Fuwa, are immune. When lined up correctly, their two-syllable names combine to spell "Beijing Welcomes You" in Chinese, but now they have been linked to the natural disasters that have befallen China this year and look like more of a curse.
One Fuwa is a panda, the symbol of Sichuan, the site of the earthquake on 12 May that killed 90,000 people. Another resembles a torch, which is said to represent the protests against the international Olympic torch relay, while the Tibetan antelope mascot has been linked to the unrest in that region in March. A swallow that looks like a kite has been linked to a deadly train crash in Weifang, which holds a well-known international kite festival every year. The final Fuwa, a fish, has been linked to widespread flooding in southern and central China in June.
More than three millennia ago, the Chinese believed you needed the blessing of heaven to rule. Floods, earthquakes, droughts and eclipses were proof that the mandate of heaven was lost, and this belief only died with the demise of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century.
The Chinese have kept records of eclipses since 720BC. One emperor had two of his court astrologers beheaded for not accurately predicting an eclipse, so important was the phenomenon in evaluating how long an emperor might live, or how good a harvest might be.
There are many innocent superstitions too, such as a belief that wearing red underwear is very auspicious in a Rooster astrological year or the requirement to eat long noodles on your birthday because they symbolise long life. But some are more serious. Four is traditionally an unlucky number in China because the word for "death" is similar. Many Chinese skyscrapers will not have a fourth floor in the same way as New York apartment blocks miss out a 13th floor.
Eight, on the other hand, is extremely auspicious. This is the reason the Olympics will begin at eight minutes past eight on the evening of the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008. The Beijing organisers even lobbied the International Olympic Committee to have the Olympics put back so they could have the lucky start date. The reason it is lucky is that in Mandarin, the word for eight, "ba", sounds like the word "fa", which means "fortune".
During the period of social upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), superstition was considered "feudal thought" and could earn you a spell in jail, or worse. But it runs too deep to change. On 8 August, we can expect a huge number of weddings, because of the lucky associations, while the number of caesarean section births is expected to spike on that day.
Censors lift net ban for journalists
China has lifted internet restrictions for reporters covering the Beijing Olympics after a week of negotiation about how journalist access sites deemed sensitive by the government.
By yesterday evening, the Amnesty International website could be accessed, as could Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia, Reporters Without Borders and the Mandarin service of the BBC. In the final countdown to the Games, starting on Friday, the Communist leadership has been dealing with lots of criticism over its failure to meet pre-Olympic pledges to improve its human rights record.
The press chief of the International Olympic Committee, Kevan Gosper, said some IOC officials had cut a deal to let China block sensitive websites to the media, despite repeated promises of a free internet. But yesterday, officials said there would be unrestricted access.
"The issue has been solved," Gunilla Lindberg, the IOC vice- president, told Reuters. "Internet use will be just like in any Olympics." But access is not totally unrestricted. The search term "Falun Gong" was blocked, as were sites linked to Chinese dissidents, the Tibetan government-in-exile and sites with information on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. And the lifting of the ban seemed to apply only in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
China's Foreign Correspondents Club welcomed the partial lifting of restrictions on several previously blocked websites but remained concerned that many internet sites remain off-limits. President Hu Jintao promised yesterday that his country would stand by pledges made when it was awarded the Olympics in July 2001 and urged the international media not to "politicise" the Games.
Three unlucky Olympic mascots
Millie, Ollie and Syd, below, – the official mascots for the Sydney Olympics – never really hit it off with the Australian public. Instead, an unofficial mascot created by a television show became the real star of the games. Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat became so popular that he often ended up joining Australian winners on the podium, and when rumours spread that the International Olympic Committee was trying to get rid of him, the IOC was forced publicly to guarantee the wombat's safety.
"Izzy", centre, caused a stir because no one could work out what on earth it was. Best described as a computer-generated blue blob, he was derided by commentators as the "sperm", the "maggot" and even "a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong". He was disowned by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, and barely seen.
Some claimed that the amorphous bodies of Phevos and Athena were an insult to the host country's culture, due to their classically inspired names. They were denounced as looking like grotesque versions of Bart Simpson and as a result were not wildly popular in Greece.
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