One important aspect of Chinese culture is the Chinese zodiac, a 12-year astrological cycle in which a zodiac animal is assigned to each year of an ever-repeating rotation.

With the passing of each Chinese New Year—itself considered the most important annual Chinese holiday—the given year’s zodiac animal progresses to the next in the 12-year lineup.

 

chinese zodiac

Why Learn About the Chinese Zodiac?

Exploring the significance of the Chinese zodiac and the personality traits represented by each animal can be a fun and engaging activity for students of the Chinese language.

More importantly, understanding the beliefs and traditions that underpin the Chinese zodiac provides insight into the complex and always-fascinating world of Chinese culture.

Overview of the Chinese Zodiac

The Chinese Zodiac is an ancient belief system considered to be a tool for deciding one’s destiny. Following the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, this scheme is based on a 12-year cycle in which each new year is represented by one of 12 zodiac animals (called 生肖 (shēngxiào) in Chinese).

This upcoming spring, families across the Middle Kingdom and throughout the Chinese diaspora will gather to celebrate Spring Festival on February 12, 2021. As they do so, they’ll welcome the second animal in the 12-year rotation, the Ox (牛 niú).

Chinese Zodiac Origin Story (or rather, stories)

Scholars believe the Chinese Zodiac originated during China’s Warring States Period (475 BCE to 221 BCE), or 战国时代 (Zhànguó Shídài). However, it wasn’t until the Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 202 CE) that the popularity of the Chinese astrological calendar began to grow.

There are several theories and popular stories explaining the origin of China’s zodiac animals. As a result, understanding the tradition’s origins can be a bit confusing.

One popular theory posits that the Chinese zodiac originated along Silk Road trade routes. Supporters of this theory say the various animals of the zodiac represent those that were introduced to China by Indian Buddhists.

A second, and perhaps more widespread, theory focuses on the legendary Jade Emperor. It’s said that he invited all the world’s animals to a banquet, but only 12 turned up. As a result, he decided to honor these 12 animals—now popularly known as the 12 Chinese zodiac animals—by dedicating one year on the Chinese calendar to each.

 

An ancient Chinese painting of the Jade Emperor, circa 16th century

The Jade Emperor, pictured here in this Ming Dynasty painting, plays an important role in traditional explanations of the origins of the Chinese Zodiac.

 

Yet another Chinese zodiac origin story claims that Buddha himself called for 12 sacred animals to protect his palace. He thus organized a race that involved all animals on earth to identify the most worthy. Finally, the top 12 finishers in the race were selected as his guards. Now, they represent the 12 Chinese zodiac signs.

The traditional order of the 12 zodiac animals is as follows:

  1. Rat (2020)
  2. Ox (2021)
  3. Tiger (2022)
  4. Rabbit (2023)
  5. Dragon (2024)
  6. Snake (2025)
  7. Horse (2026)
  8. Ram (2027)
  9. Monkey (2028)
  10. Rooster (2029)
  11. Dog (2030)
  12. Pig (2031)

Check out the following video from our friends at Ted-Ed for a quick overview of one of the myths behind the Chinese zodiac.

 

An Emphasis on Birth Year, Not Month

Western astrology emphasizes the day and month that a person was born. The Chinese system, by contrast, regards one’s birth year as the most important factor in determining one’s fate.

In fact, an individual’s personality, as well as dramatic events that occur in his or her life, are believed to be influenced by the traits of the zodiac animal associated with the year of his or her birth.

The Five Elements of the Chinese Zodiac

An equally significant but less widespread belief is that each lunisolar year is also accompanied by one of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

In accordance with traditional Chinese philosophy, these five elements are also affected by the delicate balance of Yin and Yang. For example, 2021 is both the Year of the Ox and Yin Metal, while 2022 will be the Year of the Tiger and Yang Water.

  • Wood symbolizes warmth, elegance, sensitivity, and generosity
  • Fire symbolizes decisiveness, innovativeness, dynamism, and joy
  • Earth symbolizes honesty, prudence, and hard work
  • Metal symbolizes independence, ambition, and strength
  • Water symbolizes flexibility, diplomacy, kindness, and persuasiveness

chinese zodiac

Image Credit: The Elements of the Chinese Zodiac © Parnassus

Find Your Chinese Zodiac Animal

To identify your own Chinese zodiac sign, simply match your birth year with its corresponding zodiac animal. Doing so can also help you determine the element that matches your zodiac sign.

 

Zodiac AnimalElementRecent Years
Rat, 鼠, shǔWater, 水, shuǐ1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020
Ox, 牛, niúEarth, 土, tǔ1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021
Tiger, 虎, hǔWood, 木, mù1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022
Rabbit, 兔, tùWood, 木, mù1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023
Dragon, 龙, lóngEarth, 土, tǔ1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024
Snake, 蛇, shéFire, 火, huǒ1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025
Horse, 马, mǎFire, 火, huǒ1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026
Ram, 羊, yángEarth, 土, tǔ1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027
Monkey, 猴, hóuMetal, 金, jīn1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028
Rooster, 鸡, jīMetal, 金, jīn1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029
Dog, 狗, gǒuEarth, 土, tǔ1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030
Pig, 猪, zhūWater, 水, shuǐ1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031

The Chinese Zodiac and Interpersonal Compatibility

Fortune-tellers have used the Chinese zodiac for centuries to determine the fate and fortune of countless commoners and emperors alike.

These predictions also extend to the realm of relationships and romantic interests. In fact, many use zodiac animals to determine whether their personality is compatible with potential partners. Usually, those who believe in the predictive powers of the traditional zodiac also say that each zodiac animal can interact either positively or negatively with the others.

The Personality Traits of China’s 12 Zodiac Animals

People in China often also believe that each of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals possess both favorable and unfavorable traits. In the realm of the Chinese zodiac, those born in a year corresponding to a given animal also possess these traits.

 

Round, red pictures of Chinese zodiac animals (rat, ox and tiger)

The rat, the ox and the tiger are the first three animals in the Chinese zodiac.

1. Rat

Positive traits: The rat is believed to be smart and curious. Indeed, some argue that this explains why it was the first to arrive at the emperor’s banquet. Other positive traits associated with the animal include cleverness, persuasiveness, and generosity.

Negative traits: The rat zodiac sign is, unfortunately, also associated with individuals who are uptight and monotonous.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the year of the rat include Katy Perry (American singer) and Prince Harry (Duke of Sussex).

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Rat are also believed to be more compatible with those born in the Year of the Rat, Monkey, and Dragon.

2. Ox

Positive traits: The ox might be a stubborn animal, but it also possesses impressive attributes like reliability and protectiveness. Sometimes, this sign is also associated with leadership skills and being goal-oriented.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, the ox sign also symbolizes people who are private and those who hold grudges silently.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Ox include Barack Obama (former U.S president) and George Clooney (American actor)

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Ox are more compatible with people born in the Year of the Ox, Rooster, and Snake.

3. Tiger

Positive traits: Tigers are powerful animals. Thus, this sign is associated with people who are natural-born leaders. Other characteristics those with this sign demonstrate include bravery and warm-heartedness.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, people born in the Year of the Tiger are also moody and hot-tempered at times.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Tiger include Tom Cruise (American actor) and Marilyn Monroe (American actress).

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Tiger are also said to be more compatible with people born in the Year of the Tiger, Dog, and Horse.

 

Circular red pictures of Chinese zodiac animals (rabbit, dragon and snake)

The rabbit, the dragon and the snake are three animals with prominent places in the Chinese zodiac.

4. Rabbit

Positive traits: Many consider rabbits to be sensitive and compassionate. They also possess attributes like kindness and popularity.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, the downside of this zodiac sign is that those born in the Year of the Rabbit can’t defend themselves when facing an argument.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Rabbit include Angelina Jolie (American actress) and Brad Pitt (American actor).

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Rabbit are more compatible with those born in the Year of the Rabbit, Pig, and Goat.

5. Dragon

Positive traits: People born in the Year of the Dragon demonstrate natural leadership, power, and charisma. These associations make sense when you consider that Chinese dragons are wise, benevolent and powerful creatures. In addition, many believe that those born in the Year of the Dragon are naturally lucky people.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, people born in the Year of the Dragon are also self-centered at times.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Dragon include Rihanna (singer and actress) and Bruce Lee (martial artist).

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Dragon are more compatible with those born in the Year of the Dragon, the Rat, and the Snake.

6. Snake

Positive traits: The snake symbolizes generosity and mental sharpness. Individuals born in this year are analytical and good with money.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, people born in the Year of the Snake are also distrustful, jealous, and insecure.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Snake include Muhammad Ali (American pro boxer) and Daniel Radcliffe (English actor).

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Snake are more compatible with those born in the Year of the Snake, Ox, and Rooster.

 

Red pictures of Chinese zodiac animals (horse, ram and monkey)

The horse, the ram and the monkey also claim spots among the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.

7. Horse

Positive traits: Horses are thought to be self-reliant and energetic. Thus, people born in the Year of the Horse possess these two traits in addition to a love for travel.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, those born in the Year of the Horse are also impatient.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Horse include American actresses Katie Holmes and Kristen Stewart.

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Horse are more compatible with those born in the Year of the Horse, Tiger, and Dog.

8. Ram

Positive traits: Rams are loving and supportive. Also, those with this zodiac sign demonstrate attributes like creativity and beauty.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, people born in the Year of the Ram are also unorganized and unrealistic in their expectations.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Ram include Bruce Willis (American actor) and Nicole Kidman (American-Australian actress).

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Ram are more compatible with those born in the Year of the Ram, the Rabbit, and the Pig.

9. Monkey

Positive traits: Those with this zodiac sign often demonstrate excellent listening skills and energy. Individuals born in this year are also usually cheerful people.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, people born in the Year of the Monkey also hate commitments and are often heartbreakers.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Monkey include Tom Hanks (American actor) and Daniel Craig (English actor).

Compatibility: People born in the Year of the Monkey are more compatible with other people born in the Year of the Monkey, the Dragon, and the Rat.

 

Round red pictures of Chinese zodiac animals (rooster, dog and pig)

The rooster, the dog and the pig are the last three animals in the Chinese zodiac.

10. Rooster

Positive traits: The rooster symbolizes straightforwardness and honesty. It’s also associated with practical individuals and perfectionists.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, people born in the Year of the Rooster are also materialistic.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Rooster include Kate Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) and Britney Spears (American singer).

Compatibility: Those born in the Year of the Rooster are more compatible with others born in the Year of the Rooster, the Ox, and the Snake.

11. Dog

Positive traits: This zodiac sign symbolizes loyalty as well as attributes like sensitivity, attention to detail, and honesty.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, people born in the Year of the Dog are also emotionally insecure and judgmental.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Dog include Madonna (American singer) and Winston Churchill (former British Prime Minister).

Compatibility: Those born in the Year of the Dog are more compatible with others born in the Year of the Dog, the Horse, and the Tiger.

12. Pig

Positive traits: Many say that pigs demonstrate good manners and intelligence. Additionally, they also demonstrate tastefulness.

Negative traits: Unfortunately, those born in the Year of the Pig are also incapable of making tough choices.

Representative individuals: Well-known people born in the Year of the Pig include former U.S First Lady Hillary Clinton and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Compatibility: Those born in the Year of the Pig are more compatible with others born in the Year of the Pig, the Goat, and the Rabbit.

 

Colorful picture of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals all together

Each of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals is associated with positive and negative personality traits.

The Chinese Zodiac Clock

Sometimes, people compare Chinese zodiac animal signs based on their positions on the zodiac clock, where the 12 zodiac signs represent different hours of the clock and different months of the year. In this case, some people believe that animals that are four hours apart are more compatible than those that are six hours apart.

 

color photograph of a Chinese zodiac clock

The traditional Chinese zodiac clock divides the day into 12 two-hour increments.

 

The Chinese zodiac clock system divides our 24-hour day into 12 windows, assigning a zodiac animal to each:

  • 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM — Hour of the Rat
  • 1:00 AM to 3:00 AM — Hour of the Ox
  • 3:00 AM to 5:00 AM — Hour of the Tiger
  • 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM — Hour of the Rabbit
  • 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM — Hour of the Dragon
  • 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM — Hour of the Snake
  • 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM — Hour of the Horse
  • 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM — Hour of the Goat
  • 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM — Hour of the Monkey
  • 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM — Hour of the Rooster
  • 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM — Hour of the Dog
  • 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM — Hour of the Pig

For instance, rats are most compatible with other rats, monkeys (four hours ahead), and dragons (eight hours ahead). On the other hand, rats are least compatible with rabbits (five hours ahead) and horses (12 hours ahead).

The Legend Lives On

Modern China maintains a direct link with several thousand years of civilizational and cultural development. As a result, many cultural gems have been passed down through the ages and, remarkably, continue to thrive to this day. The Chinese zodiac tradition is one of these wonders.

We hope you enjoyed our guide to the Chinese zodiac and will consider joining us one day in Guilin to learn the Chinese language with CLI as your guide. In the meantime, keep studying, keep growing.