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Chinese Zodiac

Learn about the 12-year cycle behind the Chinese zodiac.

The 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, pictured here, represent particular personal characteristics. [© Jupiter Images, 2010]
© Jupiter Images, 2010
The 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, pictured here, represent particular personal characteristics.

The Chinese zodiac is best known for the animal names it assigns to years, such as the Year of the Dog or Year of the Dragon, usually mentioned whenever reporters note the start of the Chinese new year on the second new moon after the December solstice. The Chinese zodiac, or variations of it, is part of the culture not just of China, but also of Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea and Japan. As with the Western zodiac, the Chinese zodiac is a collection of 12 signs. However, it differs from the Western zodiac in that it takes 12 years to cycle through the signs instead of 12 months, and the Chinese signs are earthly animals connected to a single legend instead of constellations having separate stories. To the Chinese, their zodiac offers a way to cyclically track time and place themselves within something larger than themselves, as well as a way to determine order of birth without knowing exact ages.

Origins of the Chinese Zodiac

The exact origins of the Chinese zodiac are not known. According to Logoi.com, the 12 Earthly Branches of the zodiac cycle date back to the Shang Dynasty (1700 to 1027 B.C.) and were not initially associated with their animals. The 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac were introduced at about the time the Chinese writing system developed, several hundred years into the Shang Dynasty, around 1400 B.C. The animals provided a convenient way to remember the years within the 12-year cycle.

Just as the real origin of the Chinese zodiac is uncertain, there are various legends behind how the individual animals came to be part of the zodiac. Most versions of the legend involve the animals being invited by the Jade Emperor (King) or, in later versions, Buddha, although in some versions a quarrel broke out among the animals that the gods had to referee. The event to which they were invited varies from a race, a feast, a birthday celebration, a departure from the world, or just because whoever invited them wanted their company. The order in which they arrived or were selected determined the order to which they were assigned years.

The Chinese Zodiac Animals

As do the zodiac signs of Western astrology, the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac represent particular characteristics. According to ChinatownConnection, the following characteristics represent each animal:

  • Rat: Imaginative, charming, honest and generous, yet also hot-tempered, suspicious and highly critical
  • Ox (Water buffalo in Vietnam): Upright, inspiring, easy-going and conservative, yet unyielding and stubborn
  • Tiger: Sensitive, charming, emotional and courageous, yet aggressive and unpredictable
  • Rabbit/Hare (Cat in Vietnam): Affectionate, talented, obliging, cautious, valuing peace and security to the point of avoiding conflict, can be overly sentimental
  • Dragon: Energetic, warm-hearted, charismatic and gifted, yet loud, garish and demanding, often concealing a soft heart
  • Snake: Clever, passionate, determined, romantic, wise and intuitive, yet vain, tight-fisted with money and prone to procrastination
  • Horse: Self-reliant, hard-working, intelligent and friendly, yet selfish, impatient and prone to think themselves above others
  • Goat/Ram/Sheep: Honest, creative, elegant, yet timid, disorganized, vulnerable, given to complaining and disdaining being pressured
  • Monkey: Intelligent, inventive, clever and entertaining, yet untrustworthy, distrustful and easily discouraged
  • Rooster: Courageous, hardworking and thirsting for knowledge, yet reckless, selfish and boastful
  • Dog: Loyal, faithful, dedicated, honest, intelligent and generous, yet cynical, anxious, sharp-tongued, and given to worry and fault-finding
  • Pig (Wild Boar in Japan): Reliable, sincere, tolerant, kind and affectionate, yet shy, impulsive and short-tempered

The 12-year cycle corresponds to an orbit of the planet Jupiter, the Year Star, which takes approximately 12 years to orbit the sun. Each animal is assigned to one of the successive years in the cycle; people born within that year exhibit the outward characteristics of the animal assigned to the year of their birth, called their outer animal. The Rat, Tiger, Dragon, Horse, Monkey and Dog are masculine (yang) signs, while the Ox, Rabbit, Snake, Goat, Rooster and Pig are feminine (yin) signs.

The animals are also assigned to successive months of the Chinese lunar calendar. People born during a given month inwardly aspire to the traits of the animal (inner animal) assigned to that month. (The inner animal sign roughly corresponds to the sun sign of Western astrology.) The hour of birth (actually, a two-hour increment based on local time) has an animal assigned to it as well; this is the secret animal whose traits a person possesses but keeps hidden from the world. (This corresponds roughly to the ascendant of Western astrology.) Taken together, the outer, inner and secret animals define 8,640 different personality combinations.

Planets and Elements

As in Western astrology, the planets visible to the naked eye play a role in the Chinese zodiac. Each represents one of the five elements, in this order:

Jupiter: Wood
Mars: Fire
Saturn: Earth
Venus: Metal
Mercury: Water

The five elements have a progressive, cyclical relationship with one another: wood begets fire, fire begets earth, earth begets metal, metal begets water and water begets wood. Taken out of order, the elements have a destructive influence on one another: water destroys (extinguishes) fire and fire destroys (melts) metal, for example. These five elements form a larger cycle, with a 12-year animal cycle devoted to each element, thus making a grand cycle of 60 years. The most recent such cycle started with the Chinese new year of February 2, 1984; the previous cycle began in 1924. One's birth year is not so much a statement of one's age as it is one's position within the 60-year cycle: someone born in 1924 or 1984 is a Wood Rat, while someone born in 1958 is an Earth Dog.

The five elements also combine with yang and yin to form 10 stems, a concept that also dates back to the Shang Dynasty. These Heavenly Stems originally represent 10 suns that each appeared in 10-day cycles and were named for the ruling clans of that time. The opposing yang and yin forces combine with the animal traits associated with a year in the cycle to determine whether a year is good or bad.

The five elements also correspond with direction, color, season, senses, tastes and body parts. Wood, and its ruling planet, Jupiter, correspond to the direction east, the colors blue and green, the season of spring, the sense of sight, the taste of sour and the body parts liver, gall bladder and ring finger. This connects the Chinese zodiac to the practice of feng shui, which uses someone's time of birth to lay out the contents of a room in harmony with the five elements and the forces of yin and yang.

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