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The Chinese zodiac
As with Western astrology, the Chinese version has a zodiac of twelve signs. The Chinese zodiac consists only of animals, in the following sequence: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
A zodiac sign is associated with each year, in a twelve-year cycle, and the change of sign is celebrated at each Chinese New Year (late January or early February). However, the same zodiac sequence is also applied to months of the lunar calendar, days, and hours of the day (actually two-hour intervals, e.g. the Hour of the Horse runs from 11am to 1pm).
As with Western astrology, the timing of a birth within the zodiac is believed to have a bearing on personality, which is at least partially connected to the zodiac animals' anthropomorphic association with human attributes: dog personalities are loyal, monkeys are intelligent and cunning, dragons are strong leaders, rabbits are energetic, etc.
The most influential determiner of personality and fortunes in Chinese astrology is the year of birth (unlike western astrology in which it is the lunar month), but a full Chinese horoscope reading also takes into account the zodiac signs of the month, day and hour.
There are also other sequences: years alternate between yin and yang, and also go through a cycle of five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), with the element changing every two years. The combination of animal and element is seen as very important, with each unique combination occurring every sixty years.
Superstitions based on Chinese astrology are still almost universal in Chinese societies (and some neighbouring countries). An astrology reading is often taken before making major decisions, even in large internationally-traded businesses. Zodiac connotations also influence the decisions people make about friendships, relationships, marriages and children. As with Western astrology, there are believed to be compatibility issues between people of particular zodiac combinations.
The zodiac year can have a profound effect on birth rates in Chinese communities, which soar during every Year of the Dragon, seen as the most auspicious zodiac symbol (being the only mythical animal in the sequence). Dragon children are believed to embody the best virtues and be blessed with the greatest fortune. The most recent Year of the Dragon began at Chinese New Year 2012.
Conversely, birth rates often plummet during the Year of the Tiger, since Tiger personalities are believed to be headstrong, uncooperative troublemakers. Birth rates in Taiwan hit an all-time low during the most recent Year of the Tiger, in 2010, despite government incentives.
Due to the continuing popularity of Chinese astrology, these superstitions can be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy. A person born in the Year of the Dragon may experience much better fortunes than one born in the Year of the Tiger, if only because of the differences in how people treat them and respond to them throughout their lives. A person born under an inauspicious zodiac sign or combination may be discriminated against in employment, and find it more difficult to find a partner.
Perhaps many of the couples who wanted children but avoided a 2010 birth may not have been influenced by any personal belief in astrology, but knew that any child born in Chinese society that year would have a somewhat tougher life than one born in a different year.
Fire Horse Women
Perhaps the worst case of the discriminatory zodiac phenomenon is that of the "Fire Horse Women", meaning women born in the Year of the Horse, when fire is the dominant element. Horse personalities are usually believed to be independent and outgoing, but under the fire element this turns to unruliness and arrogance. Girls born under this combination are believed to be particularly unlucky, and to bring ruin on their family, as well as their husband (if they are able to find one).
During the last Fire Horse Year, in 1966, birth rates dropped dramatically in China, Korea and especially Japan. There were also increased abortions, and there is evidence indicating increased rates of female infanticide. Women born in this year were often shunned, but there are examples of Fire Horse Women speaking out to express solidarity with each other and fight off stereotyping.
The next Fire Horse year will come in 2026.
- "Tiger throttling Taiwan’s birth rate", Asia Times, January 12, 2011.
- "Astrology and birth rates in East Asia", Demography Matters Blog, January 14, 2011.
- "The Strange Fate of Fire Horse Women", Kalirati, Yahoo! Contributor Network, May 20, 2009.
- Hashi. The Curse Of The Fire Horse: Japan’s Ultimate Form Of Contraception. Retrieved December 6, 2014.
- Hooper, R. How astrology and superstition drove an increase in abortions in Japan. Japan Times (July 8, 2012). Retrieved December 6, 2014.
- "Were girl babies sacrificed to a folk superstition in 1966 in Japan?", Annals of Human Biology, 1975.