By Xinhua writers Huang Yan, Xu Xiaoqing
BEIJING, Jan. 30 (Xinhua) -- Chinese people prefer a tone of optimism during Spring Festival, China's celebration of lunar New Year, but the year of horse, off and running on Friday, is kicking up some dust.
In the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, the horse symbolizes courage and strength, persistence and hardship. The horse has been the anchor of people's endeavors to surpass their physical limitations since ancient agrarian times.
This year is also known as "Jiawu" according to a traditional Chinese system, with 10 heavenly stems are used as serial numbers in combination with 12 earthly branches designating years, months, days and hours. The system is believed to have been used as early as the Shang Dynasty (17th Century B.C.-11th Century B.C.), the second dynasty of Chinese history.
As the system rules, every 60 years make an era, which is long enough to leave much space for reflection among Chinese, over the centuries.
SHADOW OF THE PAST
Two such cycles ago in the "Jiawu" of 1894, the first Sino-Japanese war broke out. The Japanese navy defeated the fleet of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It was the first time that China had lost to Japan in a military conflict.
The Qing Dynasty not only suffered enormous economic and territorial losses, but missed the chance to modernize itself as the Westernization Movement was halted.
Japan, swamped in an economic recession before the war, had its territorial ambitions fueled by war indemnities from China and occupation of Taiwan, making it the most powerful nation in Asia. And 37 years later, it waged another war on China during WWII.
The 1894 failure triggered a series of patriotic movements competing to restore the Middle Kingdom's glory. Sun Yet-sen, a doctor in his 20s, founded Hsing-chung Hui (Society for Regenerating China) at the end of the year, in Hawaii.
The society, predecessor of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, aimed to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and bringing China back to the path of modernization. In 1894, Mao Zedong was one year old.
When people look back into history, it is no surprise that China and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are revolted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, and Japan's announcement that teaching manuals for high schools would show Japanese sovereignty over many disputed islands, including China's Diaoyu Islands.
Japan's relations with China and the ROK are tense due to disputes over territorial and historical issues. The history textbook revision is one of many obstacles between Japan and its neighbors, as it demonstrates Japan's attitude towards its aggressive past.
Both born in 1954, another year of "Jiawu", Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel represent entirely different attitudes towards their countries' pasts. Germany has won approval from many for the sincerity its leaders have shown, but Japan still has a long way to go.
In the year of horse, Sino-Japanese relationship will require leaders from both sides to demonstrate wisdom and understanding.
CLEAN AIR, CLEAR MINDS
When the International Olympic Committee was formed in Paris in 1894, few Chinese had any idea about what the Olympic Games were all about.
Today, Chinese people understand the Olympic motto, "faster, higher, stronger", chosen by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games.
Host of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Beijing announced earlier this month a plan to bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games jointly with Zhangjiakou, 120 miles to the northwest of the capital.
The biggest challenge for Beijing might not be the increasing number of snow-free days but the notorious air pollution, product of uncontrolled industrialization.
The world's second largest economy reported 7.7 percent GDP growth in 2013, but growth is flagging and, as labor costs rise, poor natural resources no longer support growth at breakneck pace.
Apart from pollution, a gamut of problems--including irrational development, unbalanced economic structure and the gap between rich and poor--lie in wait.
The solutions require wisdom and determination.
The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Central Committee has dubbed the 2014 "Jiawu" the first year of New Reform, and plan to release the country's entire potential, economically, socially and ecologically.
While combating all the problems may require teamwork, the latest champion may tell a different story.
Tennis star Li Na defeated Dominika Cibulkova at the Australian Open this weekend, claiming her second Grand Slam title.
Generally regarded as something of a rebel, Li did not thank her home country nor the national team she used to be with when she clinched her first Australian Open title. She was quoted as saying that she plays just for her own entertainment and happiness.
The Internet caught fire with debate about whether China should continue to train athletes following the so-called whole-nation system learnt from Soviet Union, or if Li Na, as an individual professional, is a better example.
"Faster, higher, stronger" may help people understand the truth behind sports, but people cannot expect an immediate answer to the argument. What they can expect is reform.
BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE
The "Jiawu" of 1954 was the beginning of another cycle in Chinese history, when the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, held its first plenary session in September and adopted China's first socialist constitution.
Following four amendments to the fourth Constitution passed in 1982, the republic of the proletariate now allows and protects the existence and growth of private companies, as well as property rights of individuals.
Back 60 years ago, these were precisely what the ruling Party set out to constrain. The CPC Central Committee issued a directive in July 1954 to strengthen market management and renovate private business.
In less than six months, the retail sales of private enterprises plunged to 25.6 percent from 57.2 percent (1952) of the country's total. As for the wholesale market, state-owned businesses took over the dominance of private firms.
Today, China's self-employed, private enterprises and other non-public sectors contribute more than half of the tax revenue, more than 60 percent of GDP, and employ more than 80 percent of the workforce.
The latest action the NPC took was to scrap reeducation through labor in December.
The system dealt with minor offenders whose crimes did not warrant full court proceedings and allowed detention of up to four years without trial. In its defence, the system was established in the 1950s when the Communist Party of China was consolidating a new republic and rectifying social order.
SWORDS TO PLOUGHSHARES
In response to the "Mutual Defense Treaty" signed by the United States and Taiwan, China's non-CPC parties and mass organizations made a joint declaration on liberating Taiwan in August 1954. They reaffirmed that no foreign power which dared to stand in the way of the People's Liberation Army in Taiwan--an integral part of Chinese territory--would be tolerated.
The CPC Central Military Commission ordered the bombing of Kinmen one month later. The campaign lasted more than two decades until 1979.
As tension gradually eased across the Taiwan Strait, bloodlines bounced back. In 2008, Taiwan allowed mainland tourists to visit the island in groups. The first individual tourists from the mainland started visiting Taiwan three years later. The first 10 months of 2013 saw 1.8 million visitors from the mainland visit the island, up 12.7 percent.
Cross-strait trade surpassed 180 billion U.S. dollars in the first 11 months of last year, an increase of 18.8 percent.
Today, entering "Kinmen, bomb, knife" into the search box on taobao.com, China's e-bay, one finds nearly 1,000 items claimed to be superb kitchen knives made from high-grade steel from shell cases inherited from decades of bombing.
Even if this can be interpreted as a modern version of "swords to ploughshares", there is still much to do for peace and stability, not only across the Strait, but also in the rest of the world.
The Korean Peninsula's denuclearization remains stagnant. A final settlement of Iran's nuclear issue is yet to be reached. Syrian peace talks in Switzerland have reached deadlock, following a session tackling contentious issues, including the possibility of a transitional government. Antiterrorism maneuvers worldwide are facing challenges.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the WWI, one of the most disastrous wars in human history.
In the past century, humankind has been through some of the most significant changes in history, a time when boundaries between the real and cyber worlds have become blurred. Novel technologies including 3-D printing, artificial life, robots and nanotech are reshaping the planet and its inhabitants.
China and other countries are embracing unprecedented opportunities and critical risks.