Why is There a New Animal Every Lunar New Year?

Year of the Pig? Year of the Rat? Year of the Ox? Why is there a new animal every lunar new year? It has to do with Chinese astrology. In China and many other countries share similar calendars assign an animal to each year. There are 12 animals, and they have characteristics and traits that people born in those years display.[1] Western Astrology is similar, where your birth month links to a zodiac sign and signals particular characteristics. Instead of assigning an animal to a specific month, the Lunar system assigns the animal to a year.[2] What is the origin of animal years?

The Great Race

It all began many, many years ago, when the Jade Emperor of the Celestial Kingdom (Heaven) held a contest. The Emperor declared the winners of the Great Race would have years named after them. Cat and Rat were friends. Cat asked Rat to wake him up in the morning so they could run together. Unfortunately, in the morning, Rat was so eager to get started, he forgot to wake up the Cat. When Rat reached the end of the race, he found a wide river blocking his path. ‟How will I get across such a wide river?” though the Rat.

Luckily, Ox was also in the race and came upon the river too. Rat asked Ox if he could ride on ox’s back across the river. Ox agreed, and together they swam across the river. As Ox approached the far shore, Rat quickly ran across Ox and jumped to the shore. Rat continued running and won the race. Thus the first year is named for Rat. Ox climbed out of the river and finished second.[3]

Tiger arrived next. Though Tiger was a strong swimmer, the tide had fought his progress and delayed his arrival. Rabbit soon followed, hopping from rock to rock across the wide river. Rabbit did falter when he slipped off a rock. Luckily, a log floated by, and Rabbit rode it to the shore. The Jade Emperor named the third and fourth year after Tiger and Rabbit.

When Dragon arrived at the finish line, the Jade Emperor asked why Dragon took so long to race. After all, the Dragon can fly. Dragon explained that as he flew by, a small village suffered from a drought, so Dragon gave them rain. Then Dragon spotted a rabbit drowning in the river, so Dragon sent a log to aid him. The Emperor was impressed by Dragon’s good nature and named him the fifth year.

A wet horse galloped towards the finish line, fresh from swimming across the river. Unbeknownst to the Horse, Snake attached himself to Horse’s leg. Once Horse noticed the rider, he reared up in shock. Snake jumped off the leg and crossed the finish line. The Horse followed across to become the seventh winner.

Sometime later, Goat, Monkey, and Rooster arrived at the finish line. They teamed up to overcome the challenges of the race. Rooster found a raft so all three could ride on the raft. Monkey and Goat paddled to the far side. The Jade Emperor was impressed by the teamwork of these three animals and assigned them to the next years – eight, nine, and ten.

In eleventh place was Dog. Though a good swimmer and fast runner, Dog got distracted in the river. Dog played and swam for quite some time before remembering he was in a race. The Jade Emperor decided to end the event and was starting to close down. ‟Oink.”

The Jade Emperor looked down and saw that Pig had crossed the finish line. ‟Why did you take so long to arrive?” asked the Emperor. Pig was hungry and stopped to eat. After eating, Pig grew sleepy and took a nap. Pig woke up and hurried to the finish.[4]

Sadly much later, Cat woke up and missed the whole race. Furious, Cat hates Rat and will chase him any chance he gets.

Here’s the recap of the story. ‟The 12 animals in order are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep (Goat), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.” [5] This cycle repeats every twelve years.

What’s Your Zodiac Animal

Zodiac Animal Recent Years Personality Traits
Rat 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020 Quick-witted, resourceful, versatile, kind
Ox 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021 Diligent, dependable, strong, determined
Tiger 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022 Brave, confident, competitive
Rabbit 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023 Quiet, elegant, kind, responsible
Dragon 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024 Confident, intelligent, enthusiastic
Snake 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025 Enigmatic, intelligent, wise
Horse 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026 Animated, active, energetic
Goat 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027 Calm, gentle, sympathetic
Monkey 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028 Sharp, smart, curiosity
Rooster 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029 Observant, hardworking, courageous
Dog 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030 Lovely, honest, prudent
Pig 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031 Compassionate, generous, diligent

(Table is taken from China Highlight [6])

Chinese Alchemy Has Five Elements

In Europe, Greek Philosophy gave us four elements. They are fire, water, earth, and wind. Chinese alchemy has five elements. These elements describe how things interact and relate to each other. They are ‟…wood, fire, earth, metal, and water — are believed to be the fundamental elements of everything in the universe between which interactions occur.”[7]

Often you’ll hear someone say Metal Pig or Earth Rooster. Each year has an elemental yang aspect, the next year, an elemental yin aspect. This pattern repeats six times in a 60-year cycle. Each animal has an elemental aspect of both yin and yang versions. These aspects color the trait for the animal during the year. Again, this mirrors how Western Zodiac behaves with the Greek elements.

What is Your Birth Year and Element?

Confused? Here’s the Wikipedia table to clear up the confusion. Use it to find your Animal and Element. [8]

 1924–1983  1984–2043
1Feb 05 1924–Jan 23 1925Yang WoodRatFeb 02 1984–Feb 19 1985
2Jan 24 1925–Feb 12 1926Yin WoodOxFeb 20 1985–Feb 08 1986
3Feb 13 1926–Feb 01 1927Yang FireTigerFeb 09 1986–Jan 28 1987
4Feb 02 1927–Jan 22 1928Yin FireRabbitJan 29 1987–Feb 16 1988
5Jan 23 1928–Feb 09 1929Yang EarthDragonFeb 17 1988–Feb 05 1989
6Feb 10 1929–Jan 29 1930Yin EarthSnakeFeb 06 1989–Jan 26 1990
7Jan 30 1930–Feb 16 1931Yang MetalHorseJan 27 1990–Feb 14 1991
8Feb 17 1931–Feb 05 1932Yin MetalGoatFeb 15 1991–Feb 03 1992
9Feb 06 1932–Jan 25 1933Yang WaterMonkeyFeb 04 1992–Jan 22 1993
10Jan 26 1933–Feb 13 1934Yin WaterRoosterJan 23 1993– Feb 09 1994
11Feb 14 1934–Feb 03 1935Yang WoodDogFeb 10 1994–Jan 30 1995
12Feb 04 1935–Jan 23 1936Yin WoodPigJan 31 1995–Feb 18 1996
13Jan 24 1936–Feb 10 1937Yang FireRatFeb 19 1996–Feb 06 1997
14Feb 11 1937–Jan 30 1938Yin FireOxFeb 07 1997–Jan 27 1998
15Jan 31 1938–Feb 18 1939Yang EarthTigerJan 28 1998–Feb 15 1999
16Feb 19 1939–Feb 07 1940Yin EarthRabbitFeb 16 1999–Feb 04 2000
17Feb 08 1940–Jan 26 1941Yang MetalDragonFeb 05 2000–Jan 23 2001
18Jan 27 1941–Feb 14 1942Yin MetalSnakeJan 24 2001–Feb 11 2002
19Feb 15 1942–Feb 04 1943Yang WaterHorseFeb 12 2002–Jan 31 2003
20Feb 05 1943–Jan 24 1944Yin WaterGoatFeb 01 2003–Jan 21 2004
21Jan 25 1944–Feb 12 1945Yang WoodMonkeyJan 22 2004–Feb 08 2005
22Feb 13 1945–Feb 01 1946Yin WoodRoosterFeb 09 2005–Jan 28 2006
23Feb 02 1946–Jan 21 1947Yang FireDogJan 29 2006–Feb 17 2007
24Jan 22 1947–Feb 09 1948Yin FirePigFeb 18 2007–Feb 06 2008
25Feb 10 1948–Jan 28 1949Yang EarthRatFeb 07 2008–Jan 25 2009
26Jan 29 1949–Feb 16 1950Yin EarthOxJan 26 2009–Feb 13 2010
27Feb 17 1950–Feb 05 1951Yang MetalTigerFeb 14 2010–Feb 02 2011
28Feb 06 1951–Jan 26 1952Yin MetalRabbitFeb 03 2011–Jan 22 2012
29Jan 27 1952–Feb 13 1953Yang WaterDragonJan 23 2012–Feb 09 2013
30Feb 14 1953–Feb 02 1954Yin WaterSnakeFeb 10 2013–Jan 30 2014
31Feb 03 1954–Jan 23 1955Yang WoodHorseJan 31 2014–Feb 18 2015
32Jan 24 1955–Feb 11 1956Yin WoodGoatFeb 19 2015–Feb 07 2016
33Feb 12 1956–Jan 30 1957Yang FireMonkeyFeb 08 2016–Jan 27 2017
34Jan 31 1957–Feb 17 1958Yin FireRoosterJan 28 2017–Feb 15 2018
35Feb 18 1958–Feb 07 1959Yang EarthDogFeb 16 2018–Feb 04 2019
36Feb 08 1959–Jan 27 1960Yin EarthPigFeb 05 2019–Jan 24 2020
37Jan 28 1960–Feb 14 1961Yang MetalRatJan 25 2020–Feb. 11 2021
38Feb 15 1961–Feb 04 1962Yin MetalOxFeb 12 2021–Jan 31 2022
39Feb 05 1962–Jan 24 1963Yang WaterTigerFeb 01 2022–Jan 21 2023
40Jan 25 1963–Feb 12 1964Yin WaterRabbitJan 22 2023–Feb 09 2024
41Feb 13 1964–Feb 01 1965Yang WoodDragonFeb 10 2024–Jan 28 2025
42Feb 02 1965–Jan 20 1966Yin WoodSnakeJan 29 2025–Feb 16 2026
43Jan 21 1966–Feb 08 1967Yang FireHorseFeb 17 2026–Feb 05 2027
44Feb 09 1967–Jan 29 1968Yin FireGoatFeb 06 2027–Jan 25 2028
45Jan 30 1968–Feb 16 1969Yang EarthMonkeyJan 26 2028–Feb 12 2029
46Feb 17 1969–Feb 05 1970Yin EarthRoosterFeb 13 2029–Feb 02 2030
47Feb 06 1970–Jan 26 1971Yang MetalDogFeb 03 2030–Jan 22 2031
48Jan 27 1971–Feb 14 1972Yin MetalPigJan 23 2031–Feb 10 2032
49Feb 15 1972–Feb 02 1973Yang WaterRatFeb 11 2032–Jan 30 2033
50Feb 03 1973–Jan 22 1974Yin WaterOxJan 31 2033–Feb 18 2034
51Jan 23 1974–Feb 10 1975Yang WoodTigerFeb 19 2034–Feb 07 2035
52Feb 11 1975–Jan 30 1976Yin WoodRabbitFeb 08 2035–Jan 27 2036
53Jan 31 1976–Feb 17 1977Yang FireDragonJan 28 2036–Feb 14 2037
54Feb 18 1977–Feb 06 1978Yin FireSnakeFeb 15 2037–Feb 03 2038
55Feb 07 1978–Jan 27 1979Yang EarthHorseFeb 04 2038–Jan 23 2039
56Jan 28 1979–Feb 15 1980Yin EarthGoatJan 24 2039–Feb 11 2040
57Feb 16 1980–Feb 04 1981Yang MetalMonkeyFeb 12 2040–Jan 31 2041
58Feb 05 1981–Jan 24 1982Yin MetalRoosterFeb 01 2041–Jan 21 2042
59Jan 25 1982–Feb 12 1983Yang WaterDogJan 22 2042–Feb 09 2043
60Feb 13 1983–Feb 01 1984Yin WaterPigFeb 10 2043–Jan 29 2044

What does it all mean?

Once you know what your zodiac animal is and your yin or yang element, you can look up the traits you possess and display to others. For instance, if you were a Rat, you would be intelligent and ambitious. You are good at socializing and keep your personal life private. You may have difficulty trusting others, and you are very bright. If you were a Water Rat, you would express wisdom and display an agile mind. If you were an Earth Rat, you would show nurturing traits and honesty.[9] The possible combinations are immense. Layer in the theory that months have assigned animals, solar terms (two-week segments), and hours.[10] This quagmire of influences is just as obscure as Western Zodiac, which does the same thing with zodiac houses and hours.

By now, you can fully appreciate the Lunar New Year. In my previous article, I explain what the Lunar New Year is and what to expect. My other article discusses the Lantern Festival, which caps the Lunar New Year celebration, dragon and lion dance. These festive activities are the highlight of young and old alike. Until next time, Gong Hay Fat Choi.

[1] China Highlights, https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-zodiac/
[2] Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_zodiac
[3] China Highlights, https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-zodiac/
[4] Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_zodiac
[5] Your Chinese Astrology, https://www.yourchineseastrology.com/zodiac/
[6] China Highlights, https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-zodiac/
[7] China Highlights, https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-zodiac/china-five-elements-philosophy.htm
[8] Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_zodiac
[9] https://www.zodiacsigns-horoscope.com/chinese-zodiac/
[10] Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_zodiac

The Difference Between the Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance

The Lunar New Year ends with the lantern festival, signaled by the arrival of dancers. The most impressive is the Dragon Dance featuring a long serpentine dragon hoisted by many people. The other dance featured at the Lunar New Year is the Lion Dance, in which two acrobatic or martial arts trained people to delight the audience with their antics. These beasts, the dragon, and the lion are representations of the creatures. To an untrained eye, they are difficult to distinguish apart.

What is the difference? I’m here to help you know the difference.

The Dragon Dance ‟…is performed by a team of experienced dancers who manipulate a long flexible figure of a dragon using poles positioned at regular intervals along the length of the dragon. The dance team simulates the imagined movements of this river spirit in a sinuous, undulating manner.[1]” The dragon must be very long and have an odd number of poles or segments for good luck. The fabricated dragon body is very long, writhing up, down, left, and right by the dancers. This is the most distinguishing feature of the two creatures. If there are many dancers hoisting poles, it’s a dragon.

Dragons represent wisdom, wealth, and power. They also drive away evil spirits and bad luck. Other performers play instruments such as drums, gongs, and horns. Colors are generally green or gold representing the harvest or the Chinese Empire respectively. Sometimes, the dragon will follow a man with a ball representing the pearl of wisdom.[2] I’ve been told it is very auspicious to watch a dragon dance, so take every opportunity to observe its presentation.

The Lion Dance is a much shorter animal. ‟[L]ions have two performers inside a costume (one controlling the front legs, head, and mouth and the other controlling the hindquarters)[4]” These performers must be even more acrobatic and playful because the lion is ‟…curious creatures with a penchant for mischief…[5]” and should be very playful in its dance. The lion performers are hidden by the costume while the dragon performers are visible beneath the dragon’s body.

When the Lion bats its large eyes at your, that signals your participation in the dance. Feed the lion’s mouth a red envelope for good luck. The lion chases away evil spirits and acts as a guardian of the local community.[6] Martial arts schools gain prestige by providing dancers for the Lion Dance. We should create a team in our school to dance around town.

I hope you enjoyed our second article about the Lunar New Year and the Dances. The next article will cover the Chinese Zodiac Animals and how they play into the cycles of the years.

[1] Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_dance

[2] The Chinese Dragon Dance, https://www.china-family-adventure.com/dragon-dance.html

[3] China Highlights, https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/special-report/chinese-new-year/new-year-dragon-dance.htm

[4] Trip Savvy, https://www.tripsavvy.com/chinese-lion-dance-or-dragon-dance-1458310

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quick Concepts, http://quickconcepts.org/