Have you ever sat down at a Chinese restaurant and found yourself staring at a placemat with various animals and dates on it? Chances are, you were looking at the Chinese zodiac animals, a component of the Chinese calendar that cycles every 60 years.
The animals of the zodiac represent particular personality traits, and people have looked to these figures for thousands of years to help them understand the world and their role and future in it.
Within Chinese astrology, the zodiac animals make up a cyclical calendar composed of different elements. We know that the Chinese zodiac came to be thousands of years ago, but we don't know its exact origins. Even so, there are clues that give us a glimpse of how some believe this astrological system came to be.
Origins of the Chinese Zodiac Signs
The Chinese developed their zodiac sometime before 1000 B.C.E. Their complex astrological system divides the year into 24 parts, then combines them with a 28-part lunar zodiac and 12 branches corresponding to specific animals.
A Commonality in the Folklore
One of the most popular legends explaining the Chinese zodiac claims that Buddha invited the animals of Earth to a celebration in heaven. Twelve animals attended the celebration, and the first to arrive at the party was the rat. The ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig followed.
Some ancient Chinese believed the animals competed with one another to get to the celebration first. As legend goes, the Jade Emperor wanted 12 guards for the heavenly gate.
There are different versions of the story, but in each story, the order in which the animals arrived remained the same, which determined their places on the zodiac calendar.
A Mythical Creature in the Midst
Of the 12 animal signs, only one is a mythical creature: the dragon. "In the procession of the Chinese zodiac, the dragon appears once every 12 years, the only magical animal in the menagerie," writes researcher Daniel M. Goodkind. "As such, the Dragon Year is considered a particularly auspicious time to plan for major events such as new business ventures, marriages and births."
Personality Traits for Each Zodiac Sign
According to the Chinese horoscope, the unique personality of each animal passes on to people born in the years it rules. For example, the rat represents creativity and innovation. Therefore, those born during the year of the rat have these qualities as well. Characteristics of each zodiac animal include:
Rat: creative, innovative, imaginative
Ox: stable, hard-working
Tiger: authoritative, intense, courageous
Rabbit: popular, compassionate, family-minded
Dragon: energetic, fearless
Snake: charming, smart, introverted
Horse: independent, hard-working
Ram: shy, kind
Monkey: fun, energetic
Rooster: attentive, emotional, hard-working
Dog: patient, faithful
Pig: loving, honest
Chinese Zodiac Years
Unlike in Western astrology where horoscope dates remain fixed (for example, you are a cancer if your birthday takes place from June 22 to July 22), the dates associated with each Chinese zodiac animal change each year.
Based on the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year generally takes place between late January and mid-February. In 2011, for example, the Chinese year began on February 3, and in 2012, it started on January 23.
Therefore, someone with a birth date of January 10, 2023, is a tiger and not a rabbit, the animal sign that represents most people born in 2023.
"The Chinese zodiac starts on the first day of Chinese New Year. This is the first day of the lunar year," writes author Virginia Loh-Hagan in "Chinese Zodiac." "The Chinese zodiac follows Jupiter’s orbit… Jupiter takes 12 years to orbit the sun. This is called the ‘great year.’ The cycle repeats every 5 great years. Every 60th year is a golden year.”
Below, see some recent birth years, or ben ming nian:
Rat: January 25, 2020, to Feb 11, 2021; February 7, 2008, to January 25, 2009; February 19, 1996, to Feb 6, 1997; February 2, 1984, to February 19, 1985
Ox: February 12, 2021, to January 31, 2022; January 26, 2009, to February 13, 2010; February 7, 1997, to January 27, 1998; February 20, 1985, to February 8, 1986
Tiger: February 1, 2022, to January 21, 2023; February 14, 2010, to February 2, 2011; January 28, 1998, to February 15, 1999; February 9, 1986, to January 28, 1987
Rabbit: January 22, 2023, to February 9, 2024; February 3, 2011, to January 22, 2012; February 16, 1999, to February 4, 2000; January 29, 1987, to February 16, 1988
Dragon: February 10, 2024, to January 28, 2025; January 23, 2012, to February 9, 2013; February 5, 2000, to January 23, 2001; February 17, 1988, to February 5, 1989
Snake: February 10, 2013, to Jan 30, 2014; January 24, 2001, to February 11, 2002; February 6, 1989, to January 26, 1990; February 18, 1977, to February 6, 1978
Horse: January 31, 2014, to February 18, 2015; February 12, 2002, to Jan 31, 2003; January 27, 1990, to February 14, 1991; February 7, 1978, to January 27, 1979
Ram: February 19, 2015, to February 7, 2016; February 1, 2003, to January 21, 2004; February 15, 1991, to February 3, 1992; January 28, 1979, to February 15, 1980
Monkey: February 8, 2016, to Jan 27, 2017; January 22, 2004, to February 8, 2005; February 4, 1992, to January 22, 1993; February 16, 1980, to February 4, 1981
Rooster: January 28, 2017, to February 15, 2018; February 9, 2005, to January 28, 2006; January 23, 1993, to February 9, 1994; February 5, 1981, to January 24, 1982
Dog: February 16, 2018, to February 4, 2019; January 29, 2006, to Feb 17, 2007; February 10, 1994, to January 30, 1995; January 25, 1982, to February 12, 1983
Pig: February 5, 2019, to Jan 24, 2020; February 18, 2007, to February 6, 2008; January 31, 1995, to Feb 18, 1996; February 13, 1983, to February 1, 1984
The Structure of the Chinese Zodiac
In Chinese culture, two cycles are at work: the zodiac and the elements. The zodiac is a 12-year cycle marked by different animals. Five elements also cycle through the Chinese calendar: metal, water, wood, fire and earth.
These elements interact with the animals of the zodiac, giving each year a different characteristic. Like the animals, the elements have their own set of characteristics that influence a person's sign. They are:
Aligning the five elements to the 12 animals or years of the zodiac creates 60 different combinations — a complete cycle that lasts 60 years.
For instance, in the twentieth century, the rat ruled over the years 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984 and 1996. As you can see by this list, the animal's year comes up in cycles of 12 (12 years pass and it's the rat's year again). The rat's fixed element is water, but each person has his or her own element based on birth year.
If you were born in, say, 1924, your element is wood. In a rat year, then, your element interacts with water, so your horoscope would consider how water will relate to wood and affect your astrological forecast for the year.
Interpreting a Chinese Zodiac Horoscope
Understanding the Chinese zodiac requires an in-depth knowledge of how each cycle of the Chinese calendar operates and the meanings of the cycles' interactions with one another.
Don't worry if you find it difficult to understand how all of these components connect. Lots of sites and books will do the work for you, matching up the day and year of your birth with its corresponding animal and element.
People turn to the Chinese zodiac to help them understand their own personalities, behaviors and even how they might interact with others. For example, if your animal is the tiger and you're in a relationship with someone who was born in the year of the rat, the Chinese zodiac suggests that you two will have trouble getting along at times as you both compete for attention.
If you take this astrological system seriously, you may even consult the zodiac to help you determine which people would make the best match for you.
Chinese Zodiac Sign and Compatibility
All the animals have signs with which they are most compatible:
Rat: Rat people pair best with other rats, monkeys, oxen or dragons.
Ox: The ox should seek out rats, snakes or roosters.
Tiger: Tigers get along well with horses, dogs or pigs.
Rabbit: Rabbit people should stick to goats, dogs or pigs.
Dragon: Dragon people can have good connections with rats, monkeys or roosters.
Snake: Snakes should connect with oxen or roosters.
Horse: Tigers, goats or dogs are good matches for horses.
Goat: The goat is in good company with rabbits, horses, goats or pigs.
Monkey: Monkeys do well with rats, dragons or dogs.
Rooster: This animal sign has high compatibility with oxen, dragons or snakes.
Dog: Dog people pair well with tigers, rabbits, horses or monkeys.
Pig: Pigs get along well with tigers, rabbits or goats.
Lots More Information
Astrology. "History of Chinese Astrology." (Feb. 20, 2012) http://www.astrology.com/history-chinese-astrology/2-d-d-67537
National Endowment for the Humanities. "Animals of the Chinese Zodiac." (Feb. 20, 2012) http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/animals-chinese-zodiac#sect-introduction
Olson, Elizabeth. "Chinese Zodiac Calendar & Horoscope, Animals with Personality Traits, Yin & Yang." Fact Monster. (Feb. 20, 2012) http://www.factmonster.com/calendar/chinese-zodiac.html
Walters, Derek. "The Chinese Astrology Bible." Sterling Publishing. 2009.
Original article: The 12 Chinese Zodiac Animals
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