The animal year when a person is born is called his/her Benming Nian and therefore once in every twelve year cycle people will meet their birth sign.
The beginning of spring marks the start of a new year and Chinese New Year’s Day marks the division of two animal years. Fortune is greatly linked to the Chinese Zodiac and it is said that one will face either fortune or misery during the year of one’s birth. The colour red is revered as a form of protection against misery and is used to encourage good fortune. Red items of clothing or accessories, purchased by another, are talismans and have been since the Han Dynasty.
There are several legends about how the animals were chosen for the Chinese zodiac. One of the most well known is that of ‘The Jade Emperor‘. This Emperor, residing in Heaven long ago, decided that there should be a way of measuring time. He told all the animals that there was to be a swimming race and that the first twelve animals to cross the river would each have a year of the zodiac named after them. The animals finished in the following order:
Rat – 鼠
Ox – 牛
Tiger – 虎
Rabbit – 兔 or 兎
Dragon – 龍 / 龙Snake – 蛇
Horse – 馬 / 马
Goat – 羊
Monkey – 猴
Rooster – 雞 / 鸡
Dog – 狗 / 犬
Pig – 豬 / 猪
Twelve animals, one for each year of the twelve-year cycle. Supposedly the Rat tricked the Ox, by asking for a lift across the water and then beating him to first place at the last minute! Each animal has certain characteristics that are supposedly shared by people born under that sign. So for example, those born in the Year of the Snake are charming, popular, sharp and funny, It is believed by avid followers of the Zodiac and its meanings that certain Zodiac animals – and thus the people born in the respective years – are particularly compatible. So, those with the Year of the Snake as their birthright are compatible with those from the Years of the Rooster and Ox.
There are many similarities between the Chinese and Western Zodiacs but there are also distinct differences. According to an article by Stephanie Dempsey, “Chinese Astrology divides astrological signs by years, whereas western Astrology separates them by months…This difference in sensibilities makes sense for each culture, as eastern societies play great emphasis on generational differences, whereas western countries focus more on psychological ones.” This is the main difference but there are others such as the basis on lunar (Chinese) and solar (western) calendars.
Whichever Zodiac system you relate to most strongly, if any, it is important to understand other cultural traditions and concepts so that you are prepared when working alongside someone from another culture. Just as many Chinese respect the power of the colour red, many British respect the Queen and Monarchy. Perhaps the two are not comparable but the basic point is there – different cultures have different priorities and this must be respected.