The Chinese Zodiac

You probably know there are 12 Chinese zodiac animals used to represent years, 2021 is the Year of the Ox. Zodiac signs play an integral part in Chinese culture, and can be used to determine your fortune for the year, marriage compatability, career fit, best times to have a baby, and so much more.

What is the Chinese Zodiac?

The general consensus is that the zodiacs originally had something to do with the worship of animals. A zodiac system has existed in Chinese culture since the Qin dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago.

Over time the zodiacs became more and more integrated into everyday life, with different meanings and characteristics assigned to each animal. This in turn gave rise to various compatabilities (and incompatabilities) between each zodiac, and play a major role in marriage and career decisions, fortune-telling and more!

What's your zodiac animal?

In order, they are: rat ( / shǔ), ox ( / niú), tiger ( / hǔ), rabbit ( / tù), dragon ( / lóng), snake ( / shé), horse ( / mǎ), goat ( / yang), monkey ( / hóu), rooster ( / jī), dog ( / gǒu), and pig ( / zhū).

The zodiac cycle repeats every 12 years, making it easy to figure out whether it's your year- just check if your age is a multiple of 12! Here are the 12 zodiac animals in order with accompanying years:

Zodiac Animal Character Recent Years
Rat 鼠 (shǔ) 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020
Ox 牛 (niú) 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021
Tiger 虎 (hǔ) 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022
Rabbit 兔 (tù) 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023
Dragon 龙 (lóng) 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024
Snake 蛇 (shé) 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025
Horse 马 (mǎ) 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026
Goat 羊 (yang) 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027
Monkey 猴 (hóu) 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028
Rooster 鸡 (jī) 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029
Dog 狗 (gǒu) 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030
Pig 猪 (zhū) 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031

Maybe you think your zodiac year (本命年 / ben ming nian) will be lucky. It's your year after all. However, it's the total opposite.

It's seen as a hurdle you have jump over. The way to protect yourself from evil spirits and bad fortune is to wear red underwear every day for the entire year. Even in modern times, it's still treated as a real concern.

In some places, married men even have to be accompanied by their wives when they go out at night during their year!

Origin of the Zodiacs

One legend says that the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝 / yù huáng dà dì) needed to choose 12 animals as palace guards. The Cat asked his neighbor Rat to help him sign up. Rat forgot, which is why they became mortal enemies.

At the palace, Ox was first in line, but Rat secretly climbed onto Ox's back and jumped in front of him. Tiger and Dragon thought it was unfair, but they could only settle behind Ox. Rabbit found it unfair too. He wanted to race with Dragon and succeeded.

This angered Dog, who bit Rabbit in a fit and was sent to the back as punishment. Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey and Rooster fought amongst themselves as well. Pig came late, after everything was finally settled, and could only be the last.

Of course, this is only a story. Cats didn't even exist in China when zodiac animals first came about.

The Science Behind it All

How do Chinese astrologers know each zodiac's personality, fortune and compatibility with others?

Below is some technical information you might be interested in.

Dì Zhī (地支), or Earthly Branches, were the original terms used for the years. These branches are also assigned to the hours of the day, based on solar time.

The animals were later added as mnemonics and categorized as either yīn () or yáng ().

Ten Celestial Stems (天干 / tiān gān) pair with the Earthly Branches for a 60 year calendrical cycle. Then add in an element. These cycle through, but each zodiac also has a fixed element. This fixed element is what determines which sign you're compatible with.

Twelve Earthly Branches: zi (), chǒu (), yín (), mǎo (), chén (), sì (), wǔ (), wèi (), shēn (), yǒu (), xū (), hài ().

Ten Celestial Stems: jiǎ (), yǐ (), bǐng (), ding (), wù (), jǐ (), gēng (), xīn (), rén (), guǐ ().

Five elements: water ( / shuǐ), wood ( / mù), fire ( / huǒ), earth ( / tǔ), metal ( / jīn).

A calendar of recent years with everything explained above would look like this:

Year Celestial Stem Earthly Branch Zodiac Element Yin Yang
2000 gēng chén Dragon Metal Yang
2001 xīn Snake Metal Yin
2002 rén Horse Water Yang
2003 guǐ wèi Goat Water Yin
2004 jiǎ shēn Monkey Wood Yang
2005 yǒu Rooster Wood Yin
2006 bǐng Dog Fire Yang
2007 ding hài Pig Fire Yin
2008 zi Rat Earth Yang
2009 chǒu Ox Earth Yin
2010 gēng yín Tiger Metal Yang
2011 xīn mǎo Rabbit Metal Yin
2012 rén chén Dragon Water Yang
2013 guǐ Snake Water Yin
2014 jiǎ Horse Wood Yang
2015 wèi Goat Wood Yin
2016 bǐng shēn Monkey Fire Yang
2017 ding yǒu Rooster Fire Yin
2018 Dog Earth Yang
2019 hài Pig Earth Yin
2020 gēng zi Rat Metal Yang
2021 xīn chǒu Ox Metal Yin
2022 rén yín Tiger Water Yang
2023 guǐ mǎo Rabbit Water Yin
2024 jiǎ chén Dragon Wood Yang
2025 Snake Wood Yin


There are six groups (六合 / liù hé) of most compatible pairs. They fit into each other like jigsaw pieces. These are the ones who support you in the background.

Four groups of trios (三合 / sān hé) are the next most compatible signs. Working in a team, they complement your skills.

Introduction to the Animals

As mentioned before, the Earthly Branches are also assigned to hours of the day. The animals, depending on what they did, became associated with that certain time. This is another explanation for the ordering of the animals. The following list include each zodiac's time of day, culture, personality and compatibility.

  1. Rat (鼠 / Shǔ)

    People born in the like saving and collecting. They never have hard times financially and live organized lives. If you receive a valuable gift from a Rat, know that he thinks highly of you, because he doesn't usually like opening his wallet for others. Rats don't look for praise and recognition. They are very sensitive and know when there is trouble. When they do take risks, they're usually successful.

    • Science
      Rat is Yang, and its earthly branch is Zi.
    • Hours
      23:00–01:00. Rats are at the height of their activity at this time and people began to associate rats with the Zi hour.
    • Folklore
      Rats steal food, which can be interpreted as the household being wealthy and having surpluses. Because of their fast reproduction rate, some also pray to rats for children.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Ox
      Best group: Monkey, Dragon
      Incompatible: Horse
  2. Ox (牛 / Niu)

    People born in the are hard workers and have a strong sense of responsibility. Even if they run into difficulty during work, they'll persevere through. They aren't very romantic, but are patient and would never force themselves onto someone who doesn't like them. They are usually quiet and keep their emotions bottled up inside. It's hard for others to understand them. When they do lose their temper, it's like an explosion and can drive others away.

    • Science
      Ox is Yin, and its earthly branch is Chǒu.
    • Hours
      01:00–03:00. This is when farmers would wake up to feed their oxen.
    • Folklore
      Whipping spring cattle (打春—dǎ chūn) was a ritual performed to begin a new year of hard work and good harvests. The ox's stomach would be filled with five types of grains and scattered after the whipping to represent the sowing and harvest.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Rat
      Best group: Snake, Rooster
      Incompatible: Goat
  3. Tiger (虎 / Hǔ)

    People born in the are independent and have high self-esteem. They enjoy being the leader and protector of average people. They love justice and never back down in an argument. Recklessness is their biggest weakness, causing them to fail. However, they never truly fail. Tigers will always find a way to stand back up and succeed in the end.

    • Science
      Tiger is Yang, and its earthly branch is Yín.
    • Hours
      03:00–05:00. Tigers are the most dangerous at night. Farmers would always be able to hear their frightening roars during this hour.
    • Folklore
      Tigers are the kings of all beasts. People believe that they are the guardians of children. In the past, infants were washed with water boiled with tiger bones to prevent diseases. Children also wear hats and shoes with tiger designs.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Pig
      Best group: Horse, Dog
      Incompatible: Monkey
  4. Rabbit (兔 / Tù)

    People born in the are gentle, quiet and polite. They are patient, intelligent and chic. Their sense of responsibility and attention to detail lead to great career success. They take love seriously as well, and would never fall for someone easily. If they find the right person, they'll love them to the end of the world and back.

    • Science
      Rabbit is Yin, and its earthly branch is Mǎo.
    • Hours
      05:00–07:00. At daybreak, rabbits would come out of their homes to feed on the dew.
    • Folklore
      The rabbit represents the moon. Rather than the man in the moon, the ancient Chinese believed that there was a rabbit in the moon.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Dog
      Best group: Pig, Goat
      Incompatible: Rooster
  5. Dragon (龙 / Lóng)

    People born in the have hearts full of adventure and romance. It's hard for people to understand a Dragon's mysterious personality. At the same time, they are indifferent to things the average person worries about. They may seem lazy, but once they decide to do something, they'll be more ambitious and vigorous than anyone else.

    • Science
      Dragon is Yang, and its earthly branch is Chén.
    • Hours
      07:00–09:00. This is the most common time for fog to appear. According to folklore, dragons ride the fog to come down to Earth.
    • Folklore
      Dragons are the most revered creature in Chinese culture and are used to represent royalty. Emperors were often seen as a dragon's reincarnation. Paired with the phoenix, they also symbolize a happy marriage and harmony between yin and yang.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Rooster
      Best group: Monkey, Rat
      Incompatible: Dog
  6. Snake (蛇 / Shé)

    People born in the are idealists. On the outside, they may seem cold but, deep inside, they are warm and enthusiastic. Their desire of exclusive ownership is very fierce. It irks them if they can't fully understand someone. Snakes are devoted and determined, but their worst enemy is laziness.

    • Science
      Snake is Yin, and its earthly branch is Sì.
    • Hours
      09:00–11:00. After the fog has dissipated, snakes would come out to bask in the sun. When creating the character for sì (巳), it was written to look like a snake.
    • Folklore
      Snakes usually have a negative diction and are symbols of witchcraft. However, Nǚ Wā (女娲), the creator of the world in Chinese mythology, had a human's head and a snake's body.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Monkey
      Best group: Rooster, Ox
      Incompatible: Pig
  7. Horse (马 / Mǎ)

    People born in the are never one to surrender. They are always positive and energetic, pushing themselves forward. Their biggest desire is to have the freedom to do what they like and be able to express themselves. However, they also have various negative traits. Horses are bad at keeping secrets and lose interest quickly.

    • Science
      Horse is Yang, and its earthly branch is Wǔ.
    • Hours
      11:00–13:00. When the sun is at its brightest moment, the horses would gallop and prance joyfully in the fields.
    • Folklore
      As the head of the six domestic animals, horses are crucial in transportation and war. They represent speed and freedom. Many Northern ethnicities, such as the Mongolians and Manchurians, revere and worship the horse.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Goat
      Best group: Tiger, Dog
      Incompatible: Rat
  8. Goat (羊 / Yang)

    People born in the have a pure and kind heart. They'd rather suffer silently than argue and ruin someone else's mood. However, even in silence, they still hold onto their own opinion. In regards to their passions, they will do anything possible to fulfill their wishes. Though kind, Goats have tricks up their sleeves as well. They are skilled at using soft power, able to patiently and politely persuade others into their favor.

    • Science
      Goat is Yin, and its earthly branch is Wèi.
    • Hours
      13:00–15:00. At this time, the dew on the grass would be dried by the sun. This is the best hour to let the goats and sheep out.
    • Folklore
      Xiè Zhì (獬豸) is a mythological one-horned goat. It was the assistant of Gāo Yáo (皋陶), god of Justice. The Goat is also the symbol of filial piety.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Horse
      Best group: Pig, Rabbit
      Incompatible: Ox
  9. Monkey (猴 / Hóu)

    People born in the do things based on interest. If it's something they don't quite care for, they'll do the work sloppily. If it something they're interested in, they'll put their entire heart into it and work until they succeed. They live a long life full of energy and curiosity for the world. Monkeys also value relationships. However, spoiling children may be their weakness.

    • Science
      Monkey is Yang, and its earthly branch is Shēn.
    • Hours
      15:00–17:00. The weather is much cooler with the sun setting and the monkeys would play around in the forest.
    • Folklore
      There are multiple legends about the Monkey as humans' ancestor. Monkeys also like eating peaches. Peaches are symbols of longevity and, with time, monkeys also became associated with long life.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Snake
      Best group: Rat, Dragon
      Incompatible: Tiger
  10. Rooster (鸡 / Jī)

    People born in the are able to sense what the other person is thinking or feeling. They have quick reactions and high EQ. They make great friends, although some are cunning. Roosters are creative and talented in the arts, although few find a career in that field. They have foresight and plan everything carefully.

    • Science
      Rooster is Yin, and its earthly branch is Yǒu.
    • Hours
      17:00–19:00. The character for yǒu (酉) looks similar to wine (酒—jiǔ), and evening is the time for dinner and wine. It is also time to collect the roosters and hens and put them back in their nests, else it'll be too dark to find them.
    • Folklore
      According to legends, roosters are able to protect against evil spirits. In ancient times, sworn brothers must swear to the heavens, then drip rooster blood into wine and drink it all.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Dragon
      Best group: Snake, Ox
      Incompatible: Rabbit
  11. Dog (狗 / Gǒu)

    People born in the are conservative and full of justice. Because of their loyalty, Dogs are valued in the workplace. They rarely break rules, except for people important to them. In life, they only wish to live quietly with their family.

    • Science
      Dog is Yang, and its earthly branch is Xū.
    • Hours
      19:00–21:00. Before sleeping, the people must patrol around for a check. Trailing behind them is the dog, humanity's little helper.
    • Folklore
      In the Qin and Han dynasty, the Stone Dog was worshipped by the people. In the Guangdong province, it is still popular to name dogs Wàng Cái (旺财). It means “prosperous wealth” and comes from dogs' barking sounds (旺旺—wàng wàng).
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Rabbit
      Best group: Tiger, Horse
      Incompatible: Dragon
  12. Pig (猪 / Zhū)

    People born in the think logically and are able to fix whatever problem they're in. They aren't good communicators, but they're kind and able to provide for the family. Most of them are wealthy. Their only obvious fault is that they lose their temper easily.

    • Science
      Pig is Yin, and its earthly branch is Hài.
    • Hours
      21:00–23:00. At night, the pig can be heard rustling around. In order to fatten it up, the farmer must feed before calling it a day.
    • Folklore
      Pigs are the symbol of wealth. Their chubby faces and big ears are signs of fortune as well.
    • Compatibility
      Best match: Tiger
      Best group: Rabbit, Goat
      Incompatible: Snake