The ox, not surprisingly a symbol of hard work and dependability, can also be stubborn. The year 2009 is the Year of the Ox. From the Kailun Zodiac Collection of books. BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.

In China the zodiac is based on a calendrical system rather than on the stars. In a repeating sixty-year cycle twelve earthly “branches” operate in conjunction with ten heavenly “stems.” Each earthly branch has an animal associated with it; each stem is associated with one of the two primordial, complementary forces of Chinese cosmology.

Whereas the Western zodiac is determined by the constellations that travel through the plane of the Earth’s orbit against the celestial sphere, the Chinese zodiac is connected more closely with the Chinese calendrical system than with the stars. An ancient Chinese system of measuring time made use of a repeating sixty-year cycle whose component years combined ten heavenly “stems” and twelve earthly “branches.” Each of the earthly branches has an animal associated with it—hence, the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.

The first earthly branch is symbolized by the rat (or mouse). The second is symbolized variously by the ox, the cow, or the water buffalo. The third is symbolized by the tiger. The fourth is symbolized by the rabbit (or the cat). The fifth earthly branch is usually symbolized by the dragon. The sixth earthly branch is symbolized by the snake; the seventh by the horse; the eighth by the goat or sheep; the ninth by the monkey; the tenth by the chicken (cock); the eleventh by the dog; and the twelfth by the pig. Stories explain how the various animals became zodiac animals and why they appear in the order they do. One story explains how the cat came to be left out of the zodiac (it was because of trickery on the part of the rat) and explains the mortal enmity between the two. Interestingly enough, in Vietnam the cat takes the rabbit’s place in the zodiac.

A Chinese Horoscope of the 14th Century

The following is an excerpt from China scholar Joseph Needham’s entry on the Chinese zodiac, referring to the diagram at right.

A Chinese horoscope of the 14th century. The nineteenth of a series of 39 sample horoscopes indicating all kinds of fortunes in life; here a person who is destined to achieve fame…. Favorable features of the horoscope are shown in the top right hand box, unfavorable ones opposite on the left. Immediately underneath and at the bottom corners are shown the celestial influences governing 42 different aspects of life and health…. The outer ring of the disc itself gives constellation names, the third gives hsiu, and the seventh cyclical characters. Segment significances are defined by the fifth ring. They concern, counting counterclockwise from the right (at half-past two), fate (i.e., longevity), wealth, brothers, landed property, sons, servants, marriage and women, illness, travel, official position, happiness, and bodily constitution. The order and nature of these twelve segments show at once that they are none other than the twelve houses or cusps (loci, topoi) of Hellenistic astrology…. The houses were so many immobile divisions of the celestial sphere, and horoscopes were cast according to the positions occupied by zodiacal constellations, planets, and certain stars at the time of the individual’s birth.

Source: Adapted from Needham, J., & Ling Wang. (1956). Science & civilisation in China:History of scientific thought, Vol. II. London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 352.

These twelve earthly branches operate in conjunction with the ten heavenly stems. The stems are divided into the two basic, primordial, complementary forces of Chinese cosmology (a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe): yin (hot, dry, masculine, etc.) and yang (cold, wet, feminine, etc.), which are further modified by each of the five Chinese elements. (The ancient Greeks thought of four fundamental elements—earth, air, fire, and water—but the ancient Chinese thought in terms of five: fire, water, wood, metal, and earth.) The stems combine with the branches in six cycles of stems and five cycles of branches, for a total of sixty years in the overarching cycle.

The way the stems and branches combine is such that each animal in the Chinese zodiac is either always yin or always yang: The rat, tiger, dragon, horse, monkey, and dog are yang; the ox, rabbit, snake, sheep (or goat), chicken (cock), and pig are yin. The animals are also divided into four groups of three: the rat, dragon, and monkey; the ox, snake, and chicken (cock); the tiger, horse, and dog; and the rabbit, sheep (goat), and pig. Each group shares similar strengths, weaknesses, and other characteristics, although the characteristics of a zodiac animalin any given year will also be modified by the element for the year—so that, for instance, the fire horse is said to be a particularly potent horse.

Thus, a year has a yin or yang designation, an elemental designation, and an animal designation. Most of 2000, for example, was a yang metal dragon year. This style of designation can also be used for days or months—and, indeed, can be related to (or used to represent) stars, directions, seasons of the year, landscape features, foods, flavors, parts of the body, and many other things. The zodiac is thus linked to astrology, geomancy (divination by means of figures or lines or geographic features), health, diet, selection of a marriage partner, and the best (or worst) time to travel, begin building a house, or perform certain religious rituals.

Further Reading

Aslaksen, H. (2006). The mathematics of the Chinese calendar. Singapore: Department of Mathematics, National University of Singapore.

Walters, D. (1998). The Chinese astrology workbook: How to calculate and interpret Chinese horoscopes. Wellingborough, U.K: Aquarian Press.

Walters, D. (2005). The complete guide to Chinese astrology. London: Watkins Publishing.

Source: The Editors. (2009). Zodiac. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2659–2661. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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