Legend has it that Lord Buddha, on his death bed, summoned all the world's animals. Only 12 appeared before him--the rat, the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the boar. Buddha rewarded them by placing them in the Chinese zodiac and naming a year for each one, in a 12-year cycle.
Now it is the dragon's turn. The lunar new year that dawns next Wednesday will be the Year of the Dragon, or 4686 by Chinese calculations. A holiday that is more ancient than the Western world's Jan. 1, the lunar new year will be celebrated by about a quarter of the world's population. Wherever they live, Chinese, Vietnamese and many other Asians will pay off their debts, feast with their relatives and spoil the younger generation with lai see ("lucky money") tucked into bright-red envelopes.
Yet, in mainland China, officials approach this particular new year with misgiving. The problem is that many Chinese believe that each child takes on the personality characteristics of the animal that represents the year of his birth. Dragon babies are the most prized of all, for they are thought to be brave, self-confident, healthy and energetic, destined for success and prosperity. Every time the Year of the Dragon rolls around, birthrates climb.