What's Your Sign? Understanding the Chinese Zodiac

The Structure of the Chinese Zodiac

In the Chinese calendar, two cycles are at work: the zodiac and the elements. The zodiac, as we know, is split into a 12-year cycle marked by different animals. There are also five elements that cycle through the Chinese calendar: metal, water, wood, fire and earth. These elements interact with the animals of the zodiac, giving each year a different characteristic. Like the animals, the elements have their own set characteristics which influence a person's sign. They are:

  • metal: structure
  • water: emotion
  • wood: growth
  • fire: leadership
  • earth: stability

Aligning the five elements to the 12 animals or years of the zodiac creates 60 different combinations -- a complete cycle that lasts 60 years.

For instance, in the twentieth century, the rat ruled over the years 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984 and 1996. As you can see by this list, the animal's year comes up in cycles of 12 (12 years pass and it's the rat's year again). The rat's fixed element is water, but each person has his or her own element based on birth year. If you were born in, say, 1924, your element is wood. In a rat year, then, your element interacts with water, so your horoscope would consider how water will relate to wood and affect your astrological forecast for the year.

As you can see, understanding the Chinese zodiac requires an in-depth knowledge of how each cycle of the Chinese calendar operates and the meanings of the cycles' interactions with one another. Don't worry if you find it difficult to understand how all of these components connect. Lots of Web sites and books will do the work for you, matching up the day and year of your birth with its corresponding animal and element.

People turn to the Chinese zodiac to help them understand their own personalities, behaviors and even how they might interact with others. For example, if your animal is the tiger and you're in a relationship with someone who was born in the year of the rat, the Chinese zodiac suggests that you two will have trouble getting along at times as you both compete for attention. If you take this astrological system seriously, you may even consult the zodiac to help you determine which people would make the best match for you.

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More Great Links


  • Astrology. "History of Chinese Astrology." (Feb. 20, 2012) http://www.astrology.com/history-chinese-astrology/2-d-d-67537
  • National Endowment for the Humanities. "Animals of the Chinese Zodiac." (Feb. 20, 2012) http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/animals-chinese-zodiac#sect-introduction
  • Olson, Elizabeth. "Chinese Zodiac Calendar & Horoscope, Animals with Personality Traits, Yin & Yang." Fact Monster. (Feb. 20, 2012) http://www.factmonster.com/calendar/chinese-zodiac.html
  • Walters, Derek. "The Chinese Astrology Bible." Sterling Publishing. 2009.