Text by Zhao Yue
“The Chinese zodiac, or sheng xiao (literally “born resembling”), is a rotating cycle of 12 years,” explains Wu Yucheng, Chinese folklore expert and author of Zodiac and Chinese Culture. “There is a concrete cultural reason for the selection of each of the 12 specific animals, making the Chinese zodiac a profound cultural phenomenon.”
China’s zodiac presents a unique way of measuring years, with 12 different animals employed as symbols for each. Yet, the years don’t align with the Gregorian (Western) calendar exactly. For example, the Year of the Dragon started on January 23, 2012, and lasts until February 9, 2013. The Year of the Snake begins on February 10, 2013. In China, a person’s age can be easily deduced from his or her zodiac sign. For example, this year, a snake is either 12, 24, 36, or another multiple of 12. Thus, asking one’s sign has become a subtle and tactful method to figure out a person’s age.
The Chinese zodiac begins with the rat, followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig in sequence. Different animals represent different cultural connotations. For example, the rat represents prosperous offspring, the ox connotes ample grain, and the dragon and snake are related to rice farming culture. Since the pig is traditionally deemed to bring home good luck, it is placed at the end of the zodiac cycle to complete an auspicious circle.
The zodiac links birth to rich cultural and artistic manifestations, which in return enhance Chinese culture. Almost every zodiac sign is woven into legends and tales, and plenty of Chinese two-part allegorical sayings celebrate them, such as, “An old ox chews grass — mutters and mumbles”, “A tiger’s back — never touch it”, and “Tail of a rabbit — it cannot be long.” Legends surrounding zodiac signs are also excellent themes for traditional Chinese operas. Nowadays, people enjoy New Year movies, but in ancient times, people attended Spring Festival operas, which, most of the time, were closely related to the zodiac sign of that specific year. In the Year of the Dragon, Dragon and Phoenix Bring Auspiciousness is often performed. A favorite for the Year of the Snake is Legend of the White Snake, and the Year of the Monkey often features The Monkey King.