Understanding the Chinese New Year: 3 – The 12 Animals

Understanding Chinese New Year: 3 - The 12 Animals

The Chinese calendar is a Lunar Calendar. It is an ancient timekeeping system that follows the cycles of the moon. It’s significantly different from the Gregorian calendar, which is solar-based and used widely across the world today.

The Chinese calendar Basic Framework: Moon Cycles
The Chinese calendar Basic Framework: Moon Cycles

The Chinese calendar is primarily based on the lunar cycle, which is the time the moon takes to complete one orbit around the Earth and pass through its phases (new moon to full moon and back to new moon). This cycle takes about 29.5 days, so a typical lunar month in the Chinese calendar varies between 29 and 30 days.

The Beginning of the Year

The Chinese New Year typically begins with the new moon that occurs nearest to the beginning of spring. Because of its reliance on the lunar cycle and solar terms, the starting date of the Chinese New Year varies each year when compared to the Gregorian calendar. This usually falls between January 21 and February 20 in the Gregorian calendar.

Accuracy and Intercalary Months

Leap Months

To keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar year, an extra month (an intercalary or leap month) is added approximately every three years. This adjustment ensures that important festivals (like the Chinese New Year) always fall in their proper seasons.

The Chinese calendar’s complexity and cultural significance make it a fascinating example of how different cultures have developed systems to mark time, each suited to their specific historical, astronomical, and agricultural needs. 

The Chinese Zodiac

In our journey through the rich tapestry of the Chinese New Year, we arrive at one of its most captivating aspects: the Chinese Zodiac. This ancient system, woven into the cultural fabric of China and other East Asian countries, features a 12-year cycle, each year represented by a specific animal. These animals are not mere symbols; they carry deep meanings and stories that reflect human traits and destinies.

The 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac
A 12-year Cycle, Each Year Represented by a Specific Animal

Each animal in the Chinese Zodiac not only characterizes those born in its year but also influences the events and developments of that year. Understanding the traits associated with these animals provides insights into personality traits, life choices, and relationships.

The Twelve Animals of the Chinese Zodiac

Below are the twelve animals in their traditional order:

  1. Rat ( – Shǔ)
    Symbolizing intelligence and adaptability, the Rat marks the beginning of the zodiac cycle. People born in the Year of the Rat are often seen as quick-witted and resourceful.
  2. Ox ( – Niú)
    The Ox, embodying strength and reliability, is known for its diligence and determination. Those born under this sign are often perceived as strong, dependable individuals.
  3. Tiger ( – Hǔ)
    The Tiger, representing bravery and competitiveness, is one of the most revered animals in the zodiac. People born in the Year of the Tiger are often charismatic and adventurous.
  4. Rabbit ( – Tù)
    Symbolizing elegance and compassion, the Rabbit is a sign of peace and longevity. Those born in this year are often viewed as gentle and empathetic.
  5. Dragon ( – Lóng)
    The Dragon, an emblem of power and luck, is the only mythical creature in the zodiac. Individuals born in the Year of the Dragon are often seen as ambitious and driven.
  6. Snake ( – Shé)
    Symbolizing wisdom and intuition, the Snake is often associated with deep thinking and spirituality. People born in this year are viewed as thoughtful and mysterious.
  7. Horse ( – Mǎ)
    Representing energy and freedom, the Horse is known for its strong motivation and positive attitude. Those born under this sign are often energetic and independent.
  8. Goat ( – Yáng)
    Symbolizing creativity and calmness, the Goat is associated with peace and artistic talent. Individuals born in the Year of the Goat are often seen as gentle and thoughtful.
  9. Monkey ( – Hóu)
    The Monkey, representing cleverness and curiosity, is known for its playful and inventive nature. People born in this year are often viewed as quick-witted and versatile.
  10. Rooster ( – Jī)
    Symbolizing confidence and punctuality, the Rooster is known for its hardworking and precise nature. Those born under this sign are often seen as organized and self-assured.
  11. Dog ( – Gǒu)
    Representing loyalty and honesty, the Dog is a symbol of faithfulness and straightforwardness. People born in this year are viewed as reliable and trustworthy.
  12. Pig ( – Zhū)
    The Pig, symbolizing wealth and generosity, is known for its kindness and tolerance. Individuals born in the Year of the Pig are often generous and compassionate.

The order of the 12 animals – The Story

The story behind the order of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac is one of the most charming tales in Chinese folklore. It’s about a race organized by the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven in Chinese mythology, to select the animals for the zodiac signs. The story varies slightly in different versions, but here’s the most commonly told one:

The Jade Emperor announced that the order of the zodiac would be decided by the order in which the animals arrived at his palace. On the day of the race, all the animals lined up along the river bank.

The Rat, being clever but not a good swimmer, asked the kind-hearted Ox for a ride across the river. The Ox agreed, and they set off. Just as they were about to reach the other side, the Rat jumped off the Ox’s back and scurried to the finish line, arriving first. So, the Rat became the first animal of the zodiac.

The diligent Ox came in second. The Tiger, exerting all its strength, managed to battle the currents and came in third.

The Rabbit, not a good swimmer either, found a floating log and hopped across it to come in fourth.

The Dragon, who could have flown directly to the finish line, came in fifth. It explained to the Jade Emperor that it had to stop and make rain to help the people and creatures on earth, and also helped the Rabbit by puffing a breeze to push the log to the shore.

Next came the Horse, galloping towards the finish line, but was surpassed at the last moment by the Snake, who had been hiding on the Horse’s hoof, thus the Snake slithered in to take the sixth place, leaving the Horse in seventh.

The Goat, Monkey, and Rooster worked together to get across the river and arrived at the same time. The Jade Emperor was impressed by their teamwork and placed the Goat eighth, the Monkey ninth, and the Rooster tenth.

The playful Dog, despite being a good swimmer, was too busy playing in the water and came in eleventh.

Lastly, the Pig arrived. It had stopped to eat and take a nap, finishing the race in twelfth place.

Thus, the order of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac was established.

Each animal now represents a year in a 12-year cycle, and it is said that a person’s characteristics are influenced by the animal of their birth year.

Stay tuned for our next post, where we will explore the Five Elements in Chinese Astrology, laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding of this extraordinary festival.

Sincerely (保拳礼, Bǎo Quán Lǐ),

Shifu Roberto Baptista 

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