The most familiar aspect of the Chinese zodiac is the cycle of twelve animals - one per year - that begins with the rat. Anyone born during one of the following Chinese calendar years will have been born under the sign of the Rat: Feb 18, 1912 - Feb 5, 1913; Feb 5, 1924 - Jan 24, 1925; Jan 24, 1936 - Feb 10, 1937; Feb 10, 1948 - Jan 28, 1949; Jan 28, 1960 - Feb 14, 1961; Jan 16, 1972 - Feb 2, 1973; Feb 2, 1984 - Feb 19, 1985; Feb 19, 1996 - Feb 7, 1997; Feb 7, 2008 - Jan 25, 2009 and Jan 25, 2020 - Feb 10, 2021. Considered to share rat traits, these individuals are thought to be intelligent, clever, curious, imaginative, sociable and charismatic, but also calculating, secretive and greedy. Persons born in Rat years are reckoned to be compatible with persons born under the signs of the Dragon or Monkey, and incompatible with persons born in a Horse year.
A lesser known cycle is that of the five phases (五行; pinyin: wǔ-xíng): wood (木; pinyin: mù), fire (火; pinyin: huǒ), earth (土; pinyin: tǔ), metal (金; pinyin: jīn) and water (水; pinyin: shuǐ). The combination of phases and animals produces a 60 year cycle, so that a 60th birthday is special cause for celebration. 2020 is a year of the Metal Rat. Persons born in a Metal Rat year are thought to be more purposeful, idealistic and emotionally intense than those born in other Rat years.
Famous persons born in Rat years include Buddy Holly, Gene Kelly and Lauren Bacall.
Behind the phases and animals is a system of timekeeping involving the ten “heavenly stems” (天干; pinyin: tiāngān) and twelve “earthly branches” (地支; pinyin: dìzhī). The heavenly stems (甲乙丙丁戊己庚辛壬癸) were used from Shang Dynasty (商; pinyin: Shāng; 1554-1046 BCE) times as names for the ten days of the week. They later came to be correlated to the five phases (two per phase, in the order wood, wood, fire, fire, earth, earth, metal, metal, water, water). The twelve earthly branches (子丑寅卯辰巳午未申酉戌亥), likely devised to relate to the years of the nearly twelve year orbital period of Jupiter, came - after a thousand or so years - to be correlated to the twelve zodiac animals (in order: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig). This year's stem and branch are 庚 (pinyin: gēng ) and 子 (pinyin: zǐ), respectively.
Another lesser known aspect of Chinese astrology is that the years alternate between yin (陰; pinyin: yīn) and yang (陽; pinyin: yáng). Because there is an even number of zodiac animals, each animal is considered either yin or yang. The rat is a yang animal.
To Chinese, this most important celebration of the year is known as “Spring Festival” (春節; pinyin: Chūnjié). It is a time of family reunion. Family members gather at each other's homes for visits and shared meals, most significantly a feast (年夜飯; pinyin: niányèfàn) on New Year's Eve (除夕; pinyin: Chúxī). In Chinese societies, people may take weeks off from work to prepare for and celebrate this holiday. With about 3 billion passenger trips over the 40-day travel season, it is described as the world’s largest annual human migration.
During early periods of Chinese immigration to the United States, many Chinese arrived without their families and found a sense of community through neighborhood associations instead. Today, many Chinese-American neighborhoods and associations host New Year's banquets and other events.
At Chinese New Year celebrations people commonly wear red clothes, decorate with spring festival couplets (春聯; pinyin: chūnlián) on red paper, and give gifts of “lucky money” in red envelopes (紅包; pinyin: hóngbāo). They also set off fireworks. Both the color red and loud noises were originally thought to scare off a horrible beast that was believed to leave its lair each year at this time to feast on villagers. The Chinese word for “year” (年; pinyin: nián) originates from the name of this beast.
In some areas of China it's a popular custom to give oranges because the word used to say “orange” in those areas (橘; pinyin: jú) sounds similar to another word which means “good luck” (吉; pinyin: jí). People present oranges to their friends and relatives to express their respects and good wishes for the coming year. Two additional foods whose names are associated with auspicious words are fish (魚; pinyin: yú), which is pronounced the same as “surplus” (餘), and New Year's cake (年糕; pinyin: niángāo), which is homophonous with “venerable” (年高). Chinese dumplings (餃子; pinyin: jiǎozi) also carry special symbolism because they are shaped to resemble ingots of gold or silver (the appropriate color resulting from pan frying or boiling, respectively).
Typical Chinese greetings during the “Spring Festival” include 恭喜! (“Congratulations” - as if to say ‘you made it through another winter!’; pinyin: Gōngxǐ!), 恭喜發財! (same as “恭喜!” but with the added wish to “Get rich!”; pinyin: Gōngxǐ Fācái!), 新年好! (“Good New Year!”; pinyin: Xīnnián hǎo!); 新年快樂! (“Happy New Year!”; pinyin: Xīnniánkuàilè!) and春節快樂! (“Happy Spring Festival!”; pinyin: Chūnjiékuàilè!).
The festivities of Chinese New Year traditionally end with the Lantern Festival (元宵節; pinyin: Yuánxiāojié) on the fifteenth day (first full moon) of the new year. On this day, people eat yuanxiao (元宵sweetened dumplings made with glutinous rice flour), hang glowing lanterns in temples, and carry lanterns to evening parades under the light of the full moon. Some lanterns are true works of art, depicting birds, animals, flowers, zodiac signs, and scenes from legend and history. The Lantern Festival celebrations often culminate with a dragon dance and fireworks.
[Pre-2008 Rat year dates, famous “rats” and astrological characterizations were obtained from “The Complete Book of Chinese Horoscopes” by Lori Reid, published by Barnes & Noble Books, 1997]
Milan Vigil is the director of YMAA Taijiquan of Memphis. He has studied Taijiquan, Qigong, and Qin Na with Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming since 1989 and has assisted Dr. Yang in seminars in the United States, South America, and throughout Europe. He was awarded a gold medal at the 2008 World Cup T’ai Chi Ch’uan Championship in Taipei, was a presenter at the 2009 International T’ai Chi Ch’uan Symposium, and was featured in the 2016 and 2017 Tai Chi Spirit calendars.