Chinese New Year: The Chinese Zodiac


Chinese Zodiac Chart
Chinese Zodiac Chart

The Year of the Ox will arrive January 26 with the start of Chinese Lunar New Year. Most westerners know of Chinese Zodiac: Each year is assigned an animal. In North America many Chinese restaurants feature place mats with birth years, animals, and brief descriptions to entertain dinners while waiting for their sweet and sour pork, or General Tsao’s Chicken.

Do you know all the Chinese Zodiac animals?

Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.

But, the Chinese Zodiac, and Chinese New Year, is not that simple.

Oh no, not that simple at all.

I don’t have a degree in Sinology. My four years in China hasn’t taught me the ins-and-outs of the Chinese Zodiac. Sure, I was born in the year of the pig, but was it a yin or yang year? What element? That’s right, each year has a yin and yang designation as well as an assigned element (metal, wood, fire, water, and earth).

Element isn’t the right term. The translation is screwy and Sinologists cannot properly define the term: Element was the best they could come up with. In English an element is a building block, in Chinese the term Xing (element), means permutations or metamorphoses (or change) of being.

So, complications beyond the simple animal year. The place mats made it all seem so easy. Animals + yin/yang + element. Confused? Let’s add the inner animal (the month you were born – this is your inner motivation), and, the animal that rules the day your were born (your basic personality), and, your secret animal (based on the hour you were born).

That’s a damn zoo.

I remember reading posts on red Ravine about animals in the native American belief structure, and wonder if that is as complicated as the Chinese Zodiac.

I was born in the yin metal year of the pig. I don’t know the day or time. Based on the month, my inner animal is a tiger. My inner motivations/traits are:

Unpredictable, rebellious, colourful, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, stimulating, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous. Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish.

Source: Wikipedia

That’s correct, to a degree. (if you have seen my collection of truly ugly shirts you would agree with “colorful.” Ah ha, finally, answers.

But I was also born in the year of the pig. So, I am (predominately):

Honest, simple, gallant, sturdy, sociable, peace-loving, patient, loyal, hard-working, trusting, sincere, calm, understanding, thoughtful, scrupulous, passionate, intelligent. Can be naive, over-reliant, self-indulgent, gullible, fatalistic, materialistic.

Again, not far from the mark.

Chinese Zodiac Signs: The Ox
Chinese Zodiac Signs: The Ox

And confusing. I’m peace-loving but quick tempered? I’m materialistic but generous? (I remember an Alanis Morisette song with similar lyrics). Bu zhe dao, as we say in the Middle Kingdom: I don’t know. And, Wo bu ming bai – I don’t understand.

I’m not going to attempt to explain (or understand) the elements or yin/yang. Researching this, beyond the place mat explanations we all know has only confirmed that: In China, there are no easy answers. Questions lead to more questions.

It takes a skilled person to understand the Chinese Zodiac. The fortune tellers I have seen look like the stereotypical Hollywood Chinese sage. These are wise men. Even cursory research has left me befuddled.

The animal is a staple of Chinese Lunar New Year. You can currently buy Year of the Ox toys, statues, necklaces, and candies. If Eggo waffles were made in China (and I wish they were)  I’m certain there would be an Ox shaped toaster pastry.

I haven’t really explained anything accept my own ineptitude. now this: place mats are poor study guides. If I could go back to the Chinese restaurant that witnessed my foray in waitering – I would explain to the buffet hungry masses reading their place mats that it really isn’t that easy.

Coming soon: The mythos of the animals. Where did the menagerie in the Chinese Zodiac come from?

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Corina says:

    I find it all very fascinating. I don’t think the qualities you mentioned (peace-loving but quick tempered; materialistic but generous) are contradictory. Makes total sense to me! Of course, this comes from a Yin Wood Sheep!

    Corina´s last blog post..4 A.M.

  2. Jackie says:

    Where’s a damn Chinese restaurant placemat when you need one? I can never remember what animal I am. It’s something cool, though– of that I can assure you.

    Jackie´s last blog post..Missed: Terry.

  3. Erica says:

    I second what Carina said. The Chinese Zodiac is fascinating. I wonder how many of the personality traits of the ox that I have.

    Erica´s last blog post..In Bruges

  4. amuirin says:

    This goes well with my whole ‘people are a paradox’ mantra. The chinese seem to grasp that… or maybe they’re just hedging their bets.

    At any rate, I’m curious about the next post, because so many of those animals in the Chinese Zodiac have negative connotations in Western Culture.

    amuirin´s last blog post..Olly Olly Oxen Free

  5. Shawn says:

    Hmm, I’m a water rabbit.

    Shawn´s last blog post..Decision Reached (Sort Of)

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