The Chinese Zodiac Effect

Lit-up red Chinese lanterns
When you live in China, you cannot escape the Chinese zodiac, and the light it shines on everyday life.

My Chinese husband used to be what his mother called nanyang (难养, difficult to raise). But she didn’t turn to any Chinese equivalent of Dr. Spock to solve the problem. She saw a fortune teller.

“The fortune teller said I had a conflict with my father,” John told me. He’s a horse in the Chinese zodiac, and apparently rats — the sign of his father — just don’t get along well with their equine brethren. “So the fortune teller suggested she find a godfather who is a tiger.” That’s a tiger in the Chinese zodiac.

And that explains why a man John refers to as “godfather” shows up at John’s family home for Chinese New Year and other major holidays in China. He may not be blood family, but he’s important to the family harmony.

It’s not the first time I’d experienced the Chinese zodiac at work in daily life in China.

Once, when I had a conversation with a businessman visiting our office back in 2002, he couldn’t help but ask me about my sign, and John’s sign. This wasn’t a lame pickup line. After all, after I announced I was a snake, and John a horse, he declared us an auspicious match.

Later, John would mention it had something to do with leg count — that animals without the same number of legs get along better.

Over the years, I’ve learned many other curious traditions related to the Chinese zodiac. That the first day of a new zodiac year signals you’re one year older, even if your birthday is days, weeks or months away. That some years (the 2007 golden pig year) are better for having children than others (the 2003 sheep year, which is bad luck for girls). And that your own Chinese zodiac year — your benmingnian (本命年) — could bring great misfortune, unless you wear red every single day of the year.

In many ways, I follow Carl Sagan, who dismissed astrology and superstition as unscientific ways of explaining the world.

But then I think of my mother’s last benmingnian, when cancer snuffed out her life before the end of the year. Or my father’s last benmingnian, when he went to the hospital for a life-threatening condition. Or even my own recent benmingnian, where I battled hardship after hardship, from losing my job to workplace abuse, over and over until the end. None of us wore our red.

It could be coincidence, as Carl Sagan and other scientists might say. But, then again, come my next benmingnian, a little red sure couldn’t hurt. 😉

Have you experienced the Chinese zodiac in your life? How has it affected you?

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10 thoughts on “The Chinese Zodiac Effect

  • November 1, 2010 at 4:15 am

    I think one of my favourite zodiac moments was my mother in law, on hearing I’m a dragon, asking, “Big dragon or little dragon?” Apparently some snakes get a bit of dragon envy, and so call themselves “little dragons”.

    And when students ask me how old I am, I do like to test their maths skills and tell them, “I’m a dragon”. Doesn’t work so well for my 4th year students, though, as most of them are dragons, too. Simply add 12.

    And then, of course, we had to be very careful to avoid having a tiger baby. Apparently a dragon father and a tiger daughter would always be fighting. So now we have a little rabbit on the way. I’m with you on the scientific rationality thing, and I keep telling my wife that as a Party member she’s supposed to believe science and not superstition, but she keeps insisting, “It’s not superstition, it’s true!”

  • November 1, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I am a Rat (Wood) and so is my boyfriend. I wonder if astrologically that is a fair match or not 😀

  • November 1, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    I’m sure if they did a scientific study on whether wearing red or not made any difference whatsoever to what “bad luck” is common to all people then they will find no result. Haha. I don’t wear red all that often and I do alright. 😉
    I am really interested in the Chinese Zodiac and what people think about it in life here in China though, so thanks for this post.

    • November 2, 2010 at 10:24 am

      @Chris, yes, I have heard the whole “little dragon” thing, being a snake. Personally, I’m proud of my serpentine status, and don’t need to draw on dragons to make me feel better! 😉

      How funny that Chinese zodiac affected your wife’s pregnancy! Well, maybe she’s just hoping to save you a trip to the fortune teller down the road… 😉

      @Mish, I don’t know if that’s a good match or not. My husband used to say that animals with the same number of feet don’t get along, but then that seems to contradict many of the recommended pairings (for example, how a tiger, which has four legs, would make a better father than a rat, which also has four legs). Ultimately, what’s more important is how you feel. We can always point to something that suggests cracks in our relationship and blame it on the stars or the year — but it’s just attribution without basis. So if you love him and he loves you, just go with it!

      @Beth, oh, I’m sure science would show that there’s no statistical difference between those who wear red and those who don’t. It’s pseudoscience. It makes no sense at all I should even believe in this stuff. But when your husband’s family does it, somehow you can’t help but follow the tradition. 😉

  • November 3, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Every time I tell my Chinese relatives my sign (dragon) they’re always like “OMG that means you’re vicious!” or something along those lines. I’m also part of the explosion of Chinese babies that were born in 1988, so I guess it’s like “vicious and lucky” or something. I think it’s hilarious that people assume things about me according to my sign.

    My parents read those thick Chinese horoscope books that are published every year, and adjust what they do accordingly. There’s also that idea that certain zodiac signs are paired with other signs every year (I don’t know if that made any sense). Like, when I was applying for college a few years ago my mom forced me to wear a necklace with a tiger on it because she read that dragons need to have a tiger for luck that year. Turns out all my Chinese friends had some kind of zodiac knickknack on them from their parents for luck.

    Have you heard that this year is supposedly a bad year to get married because it ends in zero? Though that’s more of a numbers thing than a zodiac thing.

  • November 5, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    I’ve been reading your entries and thoroughly enjoyed your outside/inside look at China. I visited Hanzhou last month and looked for “your bench” on the Su Ti but there were so many! Anyway, Chinese fortune telling is based on year, month, day and time of birth. A person’s character can be predicted based partly on the day and year. The temperament (hot vs. cold) is based on the season and partly time of the day. The five elements (metal, water, wood, fire, earth) can combine and morph (or not); a complex read. Experience tells me that there is something to it! I read one of those horoscope books (mentioned by Louisa) by a Hong Kong monk named Lee Khiu Ming because he predicts world events correctly most of the time.

  • November 5, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    It’s amazing because the 12 Chinese Zodiac signs also correspond directly with the 12 Western/Greek Zodiac.

    For example, the Chinese Snake = Western Taurus, and these share many common traits in their descriptions.
    Also, there are 4 common compatibility trines – e.g. Rooster, Snake and Ox are the equivalent to the Earth trine of Virgo, Taurus, and Capricorn. Each set of 3 signs are supposedly the most compatible together.

    I find both Chinese and Ancient Greek astrology very interesting and I do believe in it to a certain extent…isn’t it a coincidence that both philosophies share so many features?!

  • Pingback: The Chinese Relatives Name Game | Speaking of China

  • July 2, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    OH NO! I am a rabbit, the luckiest of all signs, according to placemats in Chinese restaurants. I am currently having much financial difficulty and we are now in the year of the Rabbit. I better go change my outfit!!

  • October 23, 2011 at 5:04 am

    I just recently found your blog through some coincidence. I’m a fire rabbit (1987) and I have experiened alot of hardships just in the 10 months which have passed. No luck finding a job, and having problems with my studies.. Even thought I’m wearing my ”red ribbon” every day.


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