Chinese New Year: Understanding the Chinese zodiac

Welcome to the Year of the Ox. On Friday 12 February, Chinese New Year begins after a tumultuous Year of the Rat (which we all know as being centred on a pandemic), the Ox denotes a year of hard work, positivity, and honesty. Sounds like the perfect antidote to our global 12 months of struggle.

Wellington artist Stan Chan is exhibiting at Ho Sun Nian – the Courtenay Place Light Box, as part of the Chinese New Year Festival for the city’s celebrations that begin this weekend. Chan’s artworks are inspired by this year’s animal, and he, too, was born in the Year of the Ox. “I’m an ox myself. When I was researching for this project, I discovered they were hardworking and artistic, which I thought was a good explanation of me!” he laughs.

“They’re also strong, honest, they do things when they decide to do them, and once they decide they’re determined to get them done.” In a uniquely Kiwi twist, Chan’s work features both oxes and Pohutukawa trees. “The Chinese zodiac is like anything; if you believe in it, you’ll find it relevant to you. If you don’t, you won’t.”


Stan Chan with his lightbox art in Wellington | Photo: Supplied

Regardless, a quarter of the global population is influenced by the Chinese zodiac, so it is a good idea to understand the cultural relevance of the system. Unlike the Greco-Roman zodiac we know of in the Western world, the Chinese zodiac has nothing to do with constellations.

Instead of a 12-month cycle, the Chinese zodiac runs on a 12-year cycle, with each year represented by an animal. The first year is the Year of the Rat, and followed by the Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. As the Year of the Ox, that makes 2021 the second year in the Chinese zodiac cycle.

Over thousands of years in Chinese culture, the symbolism of each particular animal and subsequent superstition influences people’s major life decisions. This is how the Chinese zodiac is most easily understood from an outsider’s point of view.

For example, people believe some Chinese zodiac animals are “better” or “luckier” than others. The Year of the Dragon, for example, is considered the most desirable to be born in – it means a person should be strong, independent, and trusting. In 2012, the last time Year of the Dragon came up, births in China increased by five per cent (or an extra one million babies).

People believe some animals get along better with other animals, so parents may choose which year to give birth to all their children – the hopeful result being a team effort for a harmonious and prosperous family.

The same applies to relationships: based on your Chinese zodiac animal, it is believed you can predict the likeliness of a happy and successful relationship, be it romantic, platonic, professional, or so on. Of course, the same logic can be applied when evaluating enemies.

When somebody asks you what your Chinese zodiac animal is, they are potentially doing two things. Firstly, they are trying to evaluate you. Your personality is being assessed. Are you fortunate or misfortunate? What are your prospects? How well will you manage major life events and challenges? What’s your immediate success going to look like for the coming year? Are you a “good” person to be around like an ox (2021’s animal is diligent, persistent, and honest), or someone less desirable like a tiger, who will be thought to have a volatile temperament?

Secondly, in Chinese culture asking a person their zodiac animal is a polite way of asking how old they are. If you’re this year’s animal, an ox, you were born in 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, and so on. This makes it easy to judge if you are 12, 24, 36, 48, or 60 years old in 2021, accordingly.

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Asking somebody's zodiac sign is a way of finding out their age | Photo: Pixbay

Anybody in or passing through Wellington should check out the Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail, which is supported by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Wellington City Council. It features 12 artworks, delivered across multiple sites, each representing one animal from the Chinese zodiac. Linda Lim, programme director and Asian Events Trust chair wants to help Kiwis see the Chinese zodiac in a new way. “We can’t wait to see the artworks created by the artists come to life,” she says, “and offer a fresh way for people to experience Wellington city and engage with Chinese New Year celebrations”.

- Asia Media Centre