“It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”—Confucius
Anyone who’s ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant has probably encountered a superficial introduction to the Chinese Zodiac by way of a place mat. Generally printed in dragon red the paper rectangle gives a brief outline of the twelve animals of the Chinese wheel and their characteristics. But like sun sign astrology forecasts, or personality descriptions which appear in newspapers and tabloids, it’s premature to judge a complex discipline of thought from humorous stereotypes.
The Chinese lunar calendar is actually a chronological device which dates back to 2637 B.C.E. when the Chinese Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac. The Chinese calendar is the longest chronological record that we know of and is composed of the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches which were created as a means of keeping time. The ten stems each had an archetypal quality, perhaps like the numbers, and the branches took on more mundane characteristics. Twelve signs and ten planets are the archetypes which also combine in astrology and Qabalah. In the Chinese calendar this can be seen as two turning wheels, which engage like gears as they turn, similar to the wheel of days and numbers in the Mayan Calendar. Since most people were illiterate the Twelve Branches were also named after animals which would be easy to remember.
Unlike the Western perspective of time, which tends to see the passage of years as linear, the Chinese calendar is cyclical. It’s easier to imagine a circular calendar if we think of a clock with twelve numbered hours. Every time the hour hand goes around, or the digital numbers cycle through, we come back to the same place on the clock.
Although the Chinese adopted the Western calendar in 1911 for official and business reasons, the lunar calendar still defines important festivals such as the major celebration of Chinese New Year. One complete cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar takes sixty years and is made up of five cycles of twelve years each. Although the animals repeat every twelve years, the combination of “stem” and “branch” only happens once in the cycle. Since its inception seventy-seven cycles have completed. The current round began in February of 1984 and will end in February of 2044.
Chinese New Year begins at the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice and is seen as the onset of spring rather than spring equinox. The date of the beginning of the New Year changes each year as the lunar calendar does not move in sync with the solar calendar. This year January 29, 2006 heralds the year of the Dog, and from a Western astrological perspective, this is the New Moon of Aquarius.
Each year in a twelve-year cycle of the Lunar Calendar is named after an animal. One legend tells the story that when Lord Buddha was ready to depart the earth he summoned all the animals. Only twelve came to say goodbye. As reward for their faithfulness he named a year after each of them in the order in which they arrived to say their farewells: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Boar. Each of the animals gets a turn to head the year in successive twelve-year intervals.
Some versions of the story include elements of betrayal and trickery and involve subplots explaining why certain animals were omitted from the twelve. In one version the gods were asked to decide who would go first in the cycle of years so they devised a contest and twelve candidates were summoned to the bank of a river. Whoever reached the other side first would lead the years. Unknown to the swift swimming Ox, the Rat had jumped on its back. As the Ox was about to climb out of the water, thereby winning the place of honor, the Rat leaped ashore. Boar, according to this version of the story, was reputed to be slow moving and somewhat lazy, so he climbed out last. And so the order was decreed even though some might think the Rat cheated. This view seems to hold more philosophical realism for the slings and arrows of fortune.
Western astrology has twelve Sun Signs divided into four elements: fire, earth, air and water. Chinese astrology contains a fifth element to combine with the twelve lunar signs. The five elements of Chinese astrology are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. As the sixty-year cycle of five elements and twelve signs rotates, the animal signs combine with the five elements. The quality of the New Moon half way between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox therefore is colored by the influence of each branch and stem in turn, adding a unique aspect to the year’s character.
The elements are further divided into two qualitative aspects, Conducive and Controlling. Understanding the interrelationships of these elements can provide a deeper understanding of Oriental philosophy. The Conducive quality shows how one element flows from another and how they are interrelated. For example, Water is said to come from Metal. Metal can form a container to hold Water and Metal is the only other element that changes into a liquid. The Controlling influence is a bit like the childhood game of Scissors, Paper, Rock. In this sense Wood is said to be controlled by Metal as the tallest tree can be chopped down by a metal ax. The idea is that each element is part of the
whole and they are interrelated and linked in a cyclical pattern of life.
What’s Your Sign?
The astrological or interpretive aspect of the calendar developed later. At first, the combined influences described an overall quality to the year cast in the light of the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice. Later the lighthearted and often humorous qualities ascribed to everyone born in the year were layered onto the calendar.
In polite Chinese society, knowing the animal of someone’s birth year is also a nonintrusive way to discern their age without asking. Knowing the animal of the year of their birth, and the place that animal falls in the cycle of years, simple arithmetic reveals their age. This also provides a common ground to open a conversation.
What follows are a few descriptions of the twelve animals and is a bit like a menu in a Chinese restaurant. It’s meant to be entertaining, like a Fortune Cookie, which incidentally was an American invention. The next time you’re in a Chinese restaurant you can toss out the opening conversational volley. Remember that the Chinese New Year will always begin some time after January 21.
Rat Born in 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 2008—Ambitious, honest, generous with a tendency to be hot tempered and perhaps power hungry.
Ox Born in 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1973, 1985, 2009—Patient, powerful, inspiring to others, easy going but can be stubborn.
Tiger Born in 1914, 1926. 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 2010 — Unpredictable, charming and sensitive. Can be secretly aggressive.
Rabbit Born in 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011—Affectionate, pleasant, desires security and tranquility, dislikes risk.
Dragon 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012—Passionate and fiery, enthusiastic, artistic and dramatic, softhearted but can be bossy. Snake Born in 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013—Wise and clever, often beautiful and romantic. Can be too intense and sometimes vain.
Horse Born in 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014—Hardworking, cheerful, outgoing and full of adventure. Tendency to feel superior.
Sheep Born in 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015—Creative, artistic, honest and warmhearted. Can be disorganized and worry too much.
Monkey Born in 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 190, 1992, 2004—Clever and entertaining, magnetic personality but apt to become discouraged. Opportunistic at times.
Rooster Born in 1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005—Pioneering and thirsty for knowledge, devoted to work and good with details. Can be eccentric and selfish.
Dog 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006—Honest, loyal and faithful. Sharp tongue (or bark) is hurtful to others.
Boar (Pig) 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959 ,1971, 1983, 1995, 2007—Reliable and self-sacrificing. Noble spirit and chivalrous. Shy and sincere. Tendency to be naive brings pain in relationships.
Year of the Dog
If the character of a certain lunar year can be seen to take on the quality of the animal, then 2006 might be seen to emphasize issues of loyalty and team work. The positive and negative traits of the dog as a symbol might give us a hint of the year ahead or the areas to pay attention to. We might consider emulating the positive qualities of our canine friends such as loyalty and group consciousness. In a humorous vein, should we therefore be careful not to bark up the wrong tree? Perhaps we’ll be lucky and someone will “throw us a bone?”
On a more serious note, it is said that the Chinese believe that the animal which rules the year of birth has profound influence on your life, remarking, “This is the animal that hides in your heart.” A much deeper understanding of these principles would be required to reflect on that. I can report, however, that 2006 will be a once-in-sixty-year combination called Bing Xu, bringing together the Third Heavenly Stem, Bing, and the Eleventh Earthly Branch, Xu, Dog. I really can’t speculate what profound significance this might have without a great deal more study, but I am able to wish you, “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” Happy New Year!