How Does the Chinese Zodiac Work?

Updated on May 31, 2019
TessSchlesinger profile image

An interest in God, meta-physics, and religion dominated Tessa's life for half a century. A decade ago she walked away to become an atheist.

This article will give you a quick understanding of the Chinese Zodiac, plus give you the ability to work out your own sign accurately.
This article will give you a quick understanding of the Chinese Zodiac, plus give you the ability to work out your own sign accurately. | Source

The Chinese Horoscope and Zodiac Chart

The Chinese zodiac consists of twelve animal signs (the year you are born in), five elements (dependent on which year it is), and twelve rising signs or ascendants. These are based on the time you are born. The belief is that there is a life force on this earth (called qi or chi). When one is born, this life force enters into one to give one life.

The purposes behind the western zodiac horoscope and the Chinese zodiac horoscope are different. While western astrology will tell you your future via your sun sign, the Chinese only tell you what sort of life force (life energy, chi, or qi) is for that particular year, and how your animal sign will interact with it.

The life force (or chi) has a sixty year life cycle. During these sixty years, the characteristics of this energy changes, and it implants that particular energy into those born in that year. Those sixty years are divided into five periods of twelve years each. Each year within a twelve year period is named after an animal. In addition to that, there are five elements.

The five elements (Wu Xing) metal (jin), wood (mu), water (shui), fire (huo), and earth (tu). These are combined with the particular animal year you are born in to tell you what sort of energy your animal year has. For instance, the chi in a metal dragon year will be different to the energy in a wood dragon year. While, broadly speaking, the energy in one dragon year is the same as the energy in another dragon year, when it comes to more refined detail, there are small differences. These differences are defined by the elements.

In addition to the animal year you are born in and the element attached to that year, you have a rising sign or ascendant. So, for instance, I am a metal rabbit with dragon rising. You may be an earth dog with rooster rising or a fire snake with horse rising. And each of these combinations will determine what the essence of your character is. Your character takes on the characteristics of the year you were born into.

When the Chinese New Year comes, in order to determine how lucky or difficult that year will be, you compare the chi (qi) of your birth year with the chi (qi) of the current year. If your animal is compatible with the current year, you will have an easy year. If it is incompatible with the current life energy of the year – not so much. Of course, it may be that your rising sign is compatible with the life force of the current year but your animal is not. In that case, you’ll have a bit of both!

The dragon is the most popular all the animals in the Chinese zodiac
The dragon is the most popular all the animals in the Chinese zodiac

How to Work Out Your Chinese Zodiac Element

In order to establish what element you are, you will need to look at the last number of the year you are born in. So, for instance, if you were born in 1960 or 1971, you would be a metal element. If you were born in 2005, you would be a wood element, and if you were born in 1999, you would be an earth element.

0 or 1, you are a metal element.

2 or 3, you are a water element.

4 or 5, you are a wood element.

6 or 7, you are a fire element.

8 or 9, you are an earth element.

These elements have different meanings.

Chinese Astrology: Metal Element

If you are a metal element, then you are very strong, as well as emotionally independent of others. You don’t need a lot of things around you, but you’re high on ethics, and you not only have a lot of innate self-confidence and self-respect, but you respect others, and you serve humanity. You probably don’t express sentiment too well, and because you have such high standards, you set bar for others equally high. Unhappily others seldom live up to your standards.

Chinese Zodiac: Water Element

You’re insightful. You see below the surface of life, and you have an instinct for what is going on deep inside other people. You’re prone to focusing on your own feelings, and this can lead to anxiety and depression. At the same time, however, it enables you to recognize those in similar straits. You know the signs. This gives you great skill as a counsellor and mediator in the affairs of others.

Chinese Astrology: Wood Element

You’re a giver! Very typically, you are a people person with a solid, practical outlook on life. As a result of this, you probably have too many people coming to you to seek help. You give willingly, and you tend to hold people up. Unhappily, at times, it is beyond your strength, and then you have to lean on others in return. Fortunately, as a result of your warmth and compassion, others are only too happy to be there for you.

Chinese Zodiac: Fire Element

You tend to be lucky because your natural desire to explore all things and stretch yourself leads you to many different places. Statistically, some of these places will be places of opportunity. Your wonderings, however, can also lead you to places where more circumspect people will have the wisdom to avoid! You can appear dominant to others, and this won’t always make friends for you, but you don’t notice. Your charm generally wins through despite those awkward moments and the perception by others that you can be manipulative. Indeed, your generosity of spirit towards others will compensate for your faults.

Chinese Astrology: Earth Element

The surface of the earth is solid and stable. So is this element. As a foundational element, you tend to see yourself as central to all around you. Like the tree that shades the flowers and grass beneath it, so you provide nurture to others. You do, however, understand that you’re the tree, and that you’re responsible for the provisions! Naturally, as with the tree that shelters those that come looking for feed and shelter beneath its branches, you provide protection for others.

Best TED Video on the Chinese Zodiac

How to Find Your Ascendant in Chinese Astrology

Your ascendant is determined by the time you are born.

1am to 3 am – Ox

3 am to 5 am - Tiger

5 am to 7 am – Rabbit

7 am to 9 am – Dragon

9 am to 11am – Snake

11am to 1pm – Horse

1pm to 3pm – Sheep/Goat

3pm to 5pm – Monkey

5pm to 7pm - Rooster

7pm to 9pm – Dog

9pm to 11pm – Pig/Boar

11pm to 1am – Rat

The ascendant influences the animal sign. I’ve set this out below.

Ox Ascendant adds patient, self-discipline, with a greater inclination to drive themselves.

Tiger Ascendant adds a dash of affection and compassion in their relationships with others.

Rabbit Ascendant adds caution and reticence to their relationships with others.

Dragon Ascendant adds determination and courage to their existing character.

Snake Ascendant adds creativity and a greater inner reserve to the chi of their existing animal sign.

Horse Ascendant adds energy and more daring to the characteristics of their animal year.

Sheep/Goat Ascendant brings additional tolerance and sensitivity to others in their relationships.

Monkey Ascendant adds humour and flexibility to their animal sign.

Rooster Ascendant makes their animal sign more organized, practical, and add a dash of perfectionism.

Dog Ascendant brings a dash of loyalty and acceptance to their relationships. They also bring the occasional bite!

Pig/Boar Ascendant adds charm, conversation, and sociability to all interactions with people.

Rat Ascendant brings a bit of sociability but not so much financial generosity.

The Mythology Behind Chinese Astrology

The Animals of Chinese Astrology

There are twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac. You will need to know the year you are born in to determine which animal sign you are. Each animals depicts the energy (chi, qi) of the year into which you are born.

The Chinese Zodiac is always spoken and written about in a particular order. It starts with the year of the rat. The meanings of each animal year and sign are (briefly) below.


The rat is good at business, popular in social situations, and particularly adaptable, regardless of the situation. Rats are compatible with the ox, the dragon, and the rabbit. They also do well in rat, ox, dragon, and rabbit years.


The ox is uncomplicated and direct in interactions with others. They are also conservative and work hard. They are compatible with rat, snake, and the rooster. They do well in years of the ox, rat, snake, and rooster.


Those born in this year are confident and independent. They can also be a little pedantic and set in their ways. They are compatible with the dragon, horse, and pig/boar. Their happy years are the years of the tiger, dragon, horse, and pig/boar.


Rabbits are noble and elegant, and they love to stay home and count their money. They get along with sheep/goat, monkey, dog, and pig/boar. Naturally, their best years are those of the sheep/goat, the dog, the rabbit, and the pig/boar. Interestingly, while the rabbit gets along with those born in the year of the sheep/goat, monkey, dog, and pig/boar, those born in the year of the horse and monkey also gravitate towards the rabbit.


Ethical, lucky, intellectual, with a tendency towards arrogance, it’s the most desired sign for the Chinese. Dragons are compatible with rooster, rat, and monkey. Naturally, their best years dragon, rooster, rat, and monkey years.


Sly more than wise, they do particularly well as authors. This is probably because they have a deep understanding of human nature. They are compatible with the dragon and the rooster, and they do well in the year of the snake, dragon, and rooster.


They’re popular, high energy, have a lot of friends (naturally), and are easy going. They are best friends with the tiger, sheep, and rabbit, and naturally their best years are the years of the horse, sheep/goat, tiger, and rabbit.


Those born in this year are clever and kind. Basically, they’re really nice people, and they do well with horse, rabbit, and pig. Their best years are the year of the sheep/goat, horse, rabbit, and pig/boar.


They’re fast and versatile. They also tend to honesty and they love wealth. They gravitate towards those born in the years of the ox and rabbit. Their best years are the years of the monkey, ox, and rabbit.


Conservative, punctual, and loyal, the rooster has very traditional values. They also tend to be attractive as people and are fast friends with those born in the year of the ox and the snake. Their best years are the years of the rooster, ox, and snake.


Dogs are man’s best friends because they are so accepting of all our faults and remain loyal through thick and sin. That said, they have a strong independent streak, and they get along well with those born in the year of the rabbit. They flourish during the year of the dog and the year of the rabbit.


Those born under this animal sign naturally optimistic that life will bring them good things. They are also considerate of the needs of others. Their best mates are tiger, rabbit, and sheep. These are also their best years.

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Chinese New Year—An Auspicious Time

The Chinese Astrological year is determined according to the moon and the sun. It is, therefore on a different date every year. It is a time of great celebration and partying, and it is during this period that everybody begins to look at what the next year brings. The Chinese will also determine which year their children will be born in, and they will try for the year of the dragon which is supposed to be the most auspicious year.

You now have a basic understanding of the Chinese Zodiac.

© 2019 Tessa Schlesinger


Submit a Comment
  • Brenda Reeves profile image

    Brenda Reeves 

    5 months ago from SACRAMENTO

    I'm actually on the cusp of Leo and Virgo. I'm not sure if Leo applies to me, but Virgo definitely doesn't. I'll have to check out Leo.

  • TessSchlesinger profile imageAUTHOR

    Tessa Schlesinger 

    5 months ago from South Africa

    That's interesting. I'm a Leo, and nothing that is said about Leos applies to me. Howver, when I had my chart done (and learnt astrology), I discovered that my Leo was mixed with Scorpio, that I was just as much Virgo as I as Leo, and that my moon, Aquarius, ws not only opposite Leo, but was the opposite sign of Leo, so basically, my Leo was watered down. When I read the interpretation (I'll tell you privately), I was gobsmacked at the accuracy, and I spent 18 months learning to do sharts.

  • Brenda Reeves profile image

    Brenda Reeves 

    5 months ago from SACRAMENTO

    I have never believed in astrology, but I have fun reading my horoscope. I'm a Virgo, and nothing said about Virgos applies to me. As a matter of fact, everything about it is the complete opposite of me.


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