The Chinese Zodiac (生肖 - shēngxiào) consists of twelve animal signs, each representing a year according to the lunar calendar. The twelve animal signs, along with their Chinese characters and Pinyin pronunciation, are:
- Rat - 鼠 - shǔ
- Ox - 牛 - niú
- Tiger - 虎 - hǔ
- Rabbit - 兔 - tù
- Dragon - 龍 - lóng
- Snake - 蛇 - shé
- Horse - 馬 / 马 - mǎ
- Ram - 羊 - yáng
- Monkey - 猴 - hóu
- Chicken - 雞 / 鸡 - jī
- Dog - 狗 - gǒu
- Pig - 豬 / 猪 - zhū
Each of these signs begin on the first day of the Lunar New Year, which usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. As there are twelve animal signs, they occur in 12-year cycles, always in the same order. The Year Of The Rat, 鼠年 (shǔ nián) in Mandarin Chinese, occurs in 1984, 1996, 2008, and 2020.
Because the Lunar New Year varies according to the position of the moon, the actual dates of the Year Of The Rat are as follows:
- February 2, 1984 – February 19, 1985
- February 3, 2011 – January 22, 2012
- January 22, 2023 – February 9, 2024
- February 8, 2035 – January 27, 2036
The order of the animals is often explained with a folk-tale about how the animals were summoned to heaven by the Jade Emperor (玉皇 - Yù Huáng). The journey involved crossing a swift river, and both Cat and Rat decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hitch a ride on the back of Ox. Ox agreed to carry them both across, but when they reached the middle of the river, Rat pushed Cat into the water. As Ox approached the far bank of the river, Rat jumped ahead and ran to the meeting place, earning first place in the zodiac. This story illustrates some of the rat characteristics, namely ambition and cunning.
In Chinese culture, people born in the Year of the Rat are thought to be charming (迷人 - mí rén) and hardworking (辛勤 - xīn qín). Those born in the Year Of The Rat are very ambitious and can be ruthless when pursuing a goal. They can be agressive and obsessive, but if they learn to be more tolerant of others they can accomplish great things in almost any field they enter.
Some of the positive characteristics of Rat people are:
- meticulous (細緻 / 细致 - xìzhì)
- intelligent (聰明 / 聪明 - cōngmíng)
- eloquent (雄辯 / 雄辩 - xióng biàn)
- ambitious (有雄心 - yǒu xióng xīn)
- practical (扎實 扎实 - zhāshi)
On the negative side, Rat people can be:
- controlling (按捺 - àn nà)
- resentful (不滿 / 不满 - bùmǎn)
- cruel (粗暴 - cūbào)
- vengeful (兇狠 / 凶狠 - xiōnghěn)
- stubborn (固執 / 固执 - gùzhí)
- critical (責備 / 责备 - zébèi)
The five Chinese elements (五行 - wǔ xíng) vary the qualities of the Zodiac signs. The five elements are Metal (金 - jīn), Water (水 - shuǐ), Wood (木 - mù), Fire (火 - huǒ) and Earth (土 - tǔ), and each are combined with each of the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac to create a 60-year zodiac cycle.
The elements are cyclical in the order mentioned above. The Metal Rat, for example, falls in the years 1900 and 1960, while the Water Rat appears in the years 1912 and 1972.
Here are the Rat years with their associated elements:
- Metal Rat - (金鼠 - jīn shǔ) - 1900 and 1960
- Water Rat - (水鼠 - shuǐ shǔ) - 1912 and 1972
- Wood Rat - (木鼠 - mù shǔ) - 1924 and 1984
- Fire Rat - (火鼠 - huǒ shǔ) - 1936 and 1996
- Earth Rat - (土鼠 - tǔ shǔ) - 1948 and 2008
Each of these various rat years are tempered by their associated element. Metal, for example, is strong and rigid, and these characteristics exagerate the Rat's natural tendency towards agression and ambition. Metal Rats are determined to get what they want, which can cause extreme behavious such as envy, rage, and possessiveness.
Water, in comparison, is a soothing element, so it serves as a good counter-balance towards the rat's agressiveness. Water Rats are intelligent and insightful, and get along well with others.
Wood Rats appear self-confident, but often suffer from self-doubt. Nervertheless, they are usually successful in their endevours, perhaps because of the importance they place on family relationships and friendships.
Fire Rats love a challenge, and are always willing to try new things. They try to avoid routine and monotony, and always add a sense of fun and adventure to their activities.
Finally, Earth Rats are down-to-earth, practical, steady workers. They have their future in mind, and are willing to put in extra effort to ensure stability and success.