Astronomy and Astrology

Historically, the development of astronomy and astrology have been closely related throughout the world. In China however, the two have always retained links far stronger than in Europe where they have largely been regarded as completely separate disciplines since the eighteenth century. Today, astronomy is recognised as a scientific discipline based on the observation of objects and events beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Astrology, by contrast, is a practice more typically defined as a form of ‘divination’ and has largely to do with making predictions about life on earth by studying the position of celestial bodies in the sky. This assumes that there is a link between events on earth and in the sky and as such is a discipline which is taken very seriously by some, and derided by others.

According to Chinese astrological thought, a person's destiny can be determined a number of complex factors including the position of the major planets, sun, moon and comets in the sky at the exact hour of a person's birth and the year in which they were born. In China each year is associated with one of twelve animals and one of the five elements, making a sixty-year cycle. An accurate astrological prediction is a complex process, although it is by no means scientific, and is regarded very seriously by some people. By contrast, the knowledge of one’s year sign is something known well by most Chinese, and is commonly referred to especially in relation to compatibility with others, but it is no longer used seriously in important decision making.

The Chinese Almanac

A Chinese almanac dating from c.956 by Zhai Fengda Or.8210/s.95 . © British Library

Many Chinese households will regularly consult an almanac (or calendar) based on the lunar year that provides a set of guidelines to promote or advise against certain tasks or events being undertaken on certain days. Claims for the origins of this book go back over 4200 years to 2256 BC, from which date it is said to have been in constant publication. Originally produced solely by the imperial palace whose supposed link to the Heavens offered the ultimate authority on all matters celestial, the almanac is now freely published, but a certain ritual still surrounds its use. In its handling, clean hands and a degree of reverence are required. Old almanacs must be disposed of by burning, either at a temple or with care by each family, in order to release their powers back to Heaven and the almanac must always be stored with respect and never placed on the floor or beneath a table. Despite the lighthearted treatment of astrological suppositions surrounding the zodiac, the respect afforded to the almanac reveals the ongoing belief afforded to the more complex arts of astronomy and divination and their importance in Chinese society.

The Chinese Years & The Zodiac

Detail of almanac showing the zodiac animals Or.8210/P.6. © British Library

Some of the more popular and better-known elements of Chinese astrology are the superstitions relating to the Chinese year signs. The Chinese zodiac animals make up a twelve-year cycle used for dating the years based on a lunar system. In the lunar calendar the beginning of the year falls somewhere between late January and early February of the solar calendar. The Chinese have adopted the solar calendar since 1911, but the lunar calendar is still used for festive occasions such as the Chinese New Year and many Chinese calendars will print both the solar and the lunar dates.

The twelve animals that appear on the Chinese zodiac calendar — a rat, ox, tiger, rabbit (or hare), dragon, snake, horse, sheep (or goat), monkey, rooster, dog and pig — are the topic of countless legends embedded in Chinese mythology. The same zodiac animals are also used in many neighbouring cultures to China. You can read more about the mythology surrounding the zodiac animals by visiting our Astrology and Myths page.

In Chinese folklore horoscopes have developed around the animal signs, much like monthly horoscopes have been developed for the different moon signs (Pisces, Aries, Capricorn etc.). The signs are all allocated different qualities and attributes and horoscopes derived from these are largely regarded as light-hearted fun. However, the year signs are also each connected to one of the different five elements - water, earth, wood, fire or metal – each year in a sixty year cycle - and also with varying amounts of yin or yang (the forces of life – male and female, positive and negative). The combination of these elements is said reveal a person’s character, and this kind of information was traditionally a contributing factor in decisions about employment and marriage; for while some signs are seen to be naturally compatible, the combination of others is believed to signal disaster.

The simple characteristics of the animals themselves and the relationships they suggest are enduringly popular and well known and are commonly displayed in a wheel, representing the cyclical nature of the calendar. The cycle always begins with the rat and ends with the pig and should be read in a clockwise direction:

Do you know which year you were born in the Chinese zodiac calendar?

Find your birth year in the chart below to discover your Chinese zodiac animal and read on to see if you have the typical characteristics of your sign:

Rat 1924 1936 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996 2008
Yang Wood Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Fire Earth
Those born under the sign of the Rat are inclined to be clever, quick-witted and hardworking. Though thrifty, they can be generous to those they love and can be charming company. Rats should resist the temptation to be quick-tempered and critical.
Ox 1925 1937 1949 1961 1973 1985 1997 2009
Yin Wood Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Fire Earth
Those born under the sign of the Ox are strong leaders, who inspire confidence in others. As a result they dislike failure, or opposition and like things to be done their own way. Oxen are often very practical as well as being generous and big-hearted.
Tiger 1926 1938 1950 1962 1974 1986 1998 2010
Yang Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Fire Earth Metal
Those born under the sign of the Tiger are of a playful nature and are sensitive, emotional, and capable of great love. They are loyal and expect the same of others. Tigers are also adventurous and brave but a tendency to get carried away.
Rabbit 1927 1939 1951 1963 1975 1987 1999 2011
Yin Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Fire Earth Metal
Those born under the sign of the Rabbit are affectionate, obliging and good-natured. Rabbits have ambition but can be trusted. Although often clever and talented, Rabbits can tend toward sentimentality.
Dragon 1928 1940 1952 1964 1976 1988 2000 2012
Yang Earth Metal Water Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Those born under the sign of the Dragon are full of intelligence, vitality and enthusiasm. The Dragon is a revered sign that appears confident but can be gentle inside. Dragons are generally popular although, being perfectionists, can be too direct or demanding of others.
Snake 1929 1941 1953 1965 1977 1989 2001 2013
Yin Earth Metal Water Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Those born under the sign of the Snake are wise and charming. Snakes are often romantic and deep thinking and are strongly guided by their intuition. Snakes should avoid indecision and a tendency to vanity.
Horse 1930 1942 1954 1966 1978 1990 2002 2014
Yang Metal Water Wood Fire Earth Metal Water Wood
Those born under the sign of the Snake are hard working, cheerful characters who are popular and perceptive. Horses are very independent, can be stubborn and may have a strong temper.
Sheep 1931 1943 1955 1967 1979 1991 2003 2015
Yin Metal Water Wood Fire Earth Metal Water Wood
Those born under the sign of the Sheep are generally peaceful, charming company and are gentle and patient with friends. Sheep can appear timid, and may avoid leadership responsibility but are often elegant and artistic individuals. Sheep can have a tendency to complain about things.
Monkey 1932 1944 1956 1968 1980 1992 2004 2015
Yang Water Wood Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Fire
Those born under the sign of the Monkey are very intelligent and inventive. Monkeys are often charismatic and well liked. As an opportunist, the Monkey is versatile and quick witted, but can be strong willed or impatient as a result.
Rooster 1933 1945 1957 1969 1981 1993 2005 2016
Yin Water Wood Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Fire
Those born under the sign of the Rooster are hard workers, excellent timekeepers, decisive and outspoken. Roosters are loyal but enjoy their own company and can often be seen as dreamers.
Dog 1934 1946 1958 1970 1982 1994 2006 2017
Yang Wood Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Fire Earth
Those born under the sign of the Dog are loyal, hard working and born to lead. They can be trusted with secrets but can appear distant. Dogs have a playful character, and are not motivated by money. They can have a tendency to find fault and worry over small things.
Pig 1935 1947 1959 1971 1983 1995 2007 2019
Yin Wood Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Fire Earth
Those born under the sign of the Pig are good companions, with great inner strength. Pigs are often studious or intellectual individuals who enjoy setting themselves difficult goals. Pigs are kind, sincere, tolerant, and honest but by expecting the same from others, can sometimes be naive.

Which signs are compatible in the Chinese zodiac?

Looking at the Zodiac wheel, the three animals which are most evenly spaced from one another are generally considered to be the best matches: Rat, Dragon and Monkey; Ox, Snake and Rooster; Tiger and Horse and Dog; Rabbit, Sheep and Pig.

The signs that are opposite each other in the Zodiac Circle chart are thought to be poor matches. Generally it is believed that a Rat and Horse; Ox and Goat; Tiger and Monkey; Rabbit and Rooster; Dragon and Dog; Snake and Pig will not get along with each other either in love, in the family or in business.

But, each person is a combination of the sign of the year in which they were born as well as of the sign which influences the time of day and month in which they were born. So, while you may find that a person was born in a year that would seem to make you and they a poor match, the other influences that you share may balance the ill effects of incompatible signs and make for a very good relationship. Likewise, these influences can also cause problems in a match of even the most compatible signs.

The animal signs above, assigned by the year of your birth, represent what others perceive you as being or how you present yourself.

The month of your birth assigns your ‘inner animal’. This affects your motivations, love life and inner personality and it is vital to the understanding of your compatibility with other signs.

Tiger 1st month of lunar calendar Monkey 7th month of lunar calendar
Rabbit 2nd month of lunar calendar Rooster 8th month of lunar calendar
Dragon 3rd month of lunar calendar Dog 9th month of lunar calendar
Snake 4th month of lunar calendar Pig 10th month of lunar calendar
Horse 5th month of lunar calendar Rat 11th month of lunar calendar
Sheep 6th month of lunar calendar Ox 12th month of lunar calendar

The hour of your birth assigns your ‘secret animal’ and is the true sign upon which your personality is based. The hour itself is not based on local time but mapped according to the sun’s location.

Activity/Discussion

  • Visit our Classroom Resources and Activities Page to download printable versions of the Zodiac Wheel.
  • Work out your animal sign and those of your friends from the table above. Can you recognise yourselves in the descriptions? Do you get on well with those the zodiac says you should? If not, write your own descriptions or horoscopes. How would you describe yourself and your friends?
  • There are a number of legends which recount the selection of the zodiac animals. Visit the Astrology and Myth Page to read a popular version and then discuss the tale with your class. You might want to think about the following questions:
  • Do you think the selection process was fair?
  • Do you think any other animals should have been included and why?
  • How would you have chosen to name the months of the calendar?