For many Westerners, the Chinese zodiac and its annual cycle of 12 animals may seem a mere colorful novelty. Yet this astrological procession of birth likenesses can cause predictable spikes and lulls in the birthrate of many East Asian populations.
The phenomenon is most pronounced during those years associated with the dragon — a mythic creature that positively resonates with Chinese cultural identity and strong character attributes. The dragon is full of energy, imagination and noble leadership potential. Who wouldn't want a child associated with those qualities?
For instance, in the dragon years of 1976 and 1988, fertility rates among Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Peninsular Malaysia and other parts of Asia surged. In 1988 alone, the birthrate for Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia rose an incredible 24-26 percent, writes demographer Daniel M. Goodkind in a paper published in Population and Development Review.
You normally have to look to factors such as China's 1962 rebound from famine to spot such a birthrate spike. Outside of Asia, Romania's widespread restriction of abortion from 1967-1990 also led to a substantial birthrate boost.
The dragon craze has continued ever since the 1970s — generally more pronounced outside of mainland China, but observable there as well, according to this Priceonomics paper. Several factors seem to play into this modern trend: the growing availability of birth control, family planning and population control measures. The traditional mode of family life, in which couples had as many children as possible, became a relic.
You might well wonder if modern Chinese populations place increased significance on astrology, but as Goodkind wrote, the trend may stem from a loose acceptance of the zodiac rather than rigid acceptance of a supernatural worldview.
Dive into Chinese astrology deeply enough and you'll see that day and time of birth are actually said to exert more influence on a person than year. But if a choosy couple possesses a mere passing understanding of a dragon birth's good omen, then the superstitious weight of that knowledge might be enough to steer them toward a dragon birth trajectory.
But of course the dragon occurs just once every 12 years, and that hardly presents a reasonable reproductive timetable for everyone. That means various birthrate spikes and lulls occur with other zodiacal years as well. Even today, China's National Health and Family Planning Commission blamed 2015's 320,000 decline in births on the supposed bad luck associated with goat babies, writes NPR. After all, we're talking about a domesticated animal raised for food. Hardly the stuff of dragons, right? Likewise, they predict 2016's year of the monkey to spike with reproductive zeal. (The new year begins on Feb. 8.)
Insert your own "monkey business" joke here, because maternity bookings for Harmonicare Medical Holdings Ltd.'s Beijing hospital have already jumped 30 percent — a boost that also might be influenced by the end of China's one-child policy.
Here come the monkeys and, fear not, the dragon returns in 2024.