Can I Balance an Egg on Its End at Chinese New Year?
Yes. Although not for the reasons you might think.
The tradition isn’t linked to Chinese New Year, but to lap chun, the first “solar term” in the Chinese calendar and beginning of spring. It falls on February 4-5, running through February 18-19. The belief is that during this auspicious period, a fresh chicken’s egg can be stood on its end, unsupported. The theory goes that at this time of year the moon and earth are in exactly the right alignment, the celestial bodies generating the perfect balance of forces needed to make it possible.
A 1945 story in the American magazine LIFE reported on the rise of egg balancing among the expatriate community of Chongqing, who appear to have been keen for something to take their mind off the tedium of war. The author of the piece writes that, “On Feb. 21 the regular weekly press conference talked about currency stabilization, postwar planning and the Communist problem, then moved on to the hostel lawn to stand up eggs.” Albert Einstein was apparently skeptical.
It’s from there that the tradition spread to the US, where the phenomenon is centered around the vernal equinox, March 20—presumably because no one told the Americans that the Chinese start of spring is a couple of months earlier.
Truth is, of course, that eggs are no more or less likely to be able to balance on their ends during lap chun than at any other time of year. Differences in gravitational forces are infinitesimal. Egg shells are in fact quite rough, meaning that multiple points along on shell can touch a flat surface at any one time, allowing them to balance relatively easily. But it’s a self-fulfilling tradition, isn’t it? The only time that you’re likely to spend the time and effort on trying to get an egg on its end is during lap chun, precisely the time you believe it’s possible. So every time you succeed, you’re just perpetuating the myth.
Do you know the story of Columbus’ egg? The legend goes that Christopher Columbus had returned to Europe after having discovered the Americas. At a party one evening, a group of nobles accosted him and told him that his discovery of the Americas was no great feat: Any one of them could have done it. Columbus said nothing, but took an egg and challenged them to make it stand on its end. No one could do it—at which point Columbus took back the egg and tapped it on the table, flattening its tip so it would stand. His point: Once you’ve done something, anyone can do it.
Or maybe he was just doing it at lap chun?