Do you know what your Chinese sign of the zodiac is? According to Chinese lunar calendar, every year corresponds to one of twelve animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig) and these are used to identify the year. In Chinese this identification of one's birth year and sign is known as ben ming nian.
After the Lunar New Year in 2008 we enter rat year. All those born in 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936 or 1924, also have a rat as their sign.
But why is the ben ming nian so special to people compared with other years? Here Liu Lian shares some of the background about the Chinese zodiac in an effort to help readers better understand this ancient tradition.
Chinese and Their Ben Ming Nian
In the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, years are recorded by a system that is composed of a combination of the 10 Heaven Stems and 12 Earth Branches. Given this, every person will encounter the year that corresponds with his (or her) year of birth once every 12 years. This is known as ben ming nian.
Ben ming nian is very part of Chinese life. Different animal signs are believed to carry different meanings by Chinese, in much the same way as the Western horoscope. Many young couples in China would choose special animal signs for their coming babies. For example, the pig represents wealth, so this is why the number of the babies born in 2007, year of pig, was greater than that in other years.
In the traditional concept, life is viewed in groups of 12 years. At the age of 12 a child grows up into the adolescence; at 24 is a time that a person enters society for the first time; at 36 means maturity of a person; at 48 should be a year that one has accomplished something; at 60 is the time of retirement; at 72 one should enjoy old age; and if a person lives to the age of 84 or 96, every day they pass is an unexpected blessing. Anyone who is lucky enough to celebrate his (or her) 9th or 10th ben ming nian, will see it as a miracle of life.
So, how to deal with ben ming nian is very important to Chinese, especially in the past. Actually, Chinese people look upon the ben ming nian as an unlucky encounter as many believe that they may meet setbacks during this time and the year is a big barrier in their lives. There is a fear that things may not go according to plan in the year.
To avoid anything unhappy taking place, people may resort to conventions that have been passed down through the generations, one of which is to wear or use something red. This practice originated in the worship of the color red in Chinese culture. In China, red carries an atmosphere of happiness, success, loyalty, courage and justice. In ancient times, during a wedding ceremony the bride would sit in a red carriage, wear a red wedding dress and the houses of the two families would be decorated in red, including red carpet, red lanterns and red candles.
Red was significant in many areas of Chinese life. In olden days, if an army gained a victory, a special messenger would report the news holding a red flag. If a student gained top marks in a royal examination for selecting officials, they would go home dressed in a red robe and hat. Even in traditional operas, the positive roles showing upright, loyal and brave qualities would find the faces of the actors painted red.
Following traditional custom, on the eve of the Spring Festival, people will wear clothes or decorations in red to meet their ben ming nian, believing that only in this way will they keep bad luck at bay in the coming year.
How to Count Years?
The traditional way of counting years in China is based on a system composed by the combination of 10 tian gan, or Heaven Stems, and 12 di zhi, or Earth Branches.
In traditional Chinese calendar, the 10 Heaven Stems represent a certain "order," and the 12 Earth Branches represent time. The combination of one of the 10 Heaven Stems and one of the 12 Earth Branches will be the name of a certain year. For example, jia, ranks the first in the 10 Heaven Stems, and zi ranks the first among the 12 Earth Branches, and so the name of the year that jia happens to combine with zi will be the year of jia zi.
And if the 10th Heaven Stem has combined with the 10th Earth Branches, then the first stem will be used again to combine with the 11th branch. In this way, these 10 stems and 12 branches rotate to match with each other, and every 60 years, the same year's name will appear.
12 Animal Signs
Besides the system of 10 Heaven Stems and 12 Earth Branches, Chinese people also use 12 animals or creatures, which are rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig, to name years. The difference is that the animal signs are more related to one's personal life.
The 12 animals fixedly correspond to the 12 Earth Branches. In other words, every animal sign has its own fixed Earth Branch. Every 12 years, the same animal sign will be used to name the year again. For example, the year 1996 was a year of rat, followed by rat year again 12 years later in 2008. In the traditional Chinese belief, people who share the same animal sign are said to have a similar character, temperament and fortune in their lives.
Nobody knows how far the system of using animal signs to name years dates back. The archeological discoveries show these signs were used as early as 5,000 years ago. In addition, unearthed documents with a history of almost 2,000 years show evidence of the animal-year system.
It is a system that proves very useful to remember one's year of birth, especially in the past. And even today, some Chinese in their 80s or 90s may not remember the calendar year of their birth, but will easily recall their animal sign. This is especially true in the countryside.
Many cultural aspects and art forms have come into being based on the legends about the 12 animal signs. For example, Chinese fortune-tellers may tell you which animal sign is the most suitable for marriage. Many art forms also use the images of the 12 animals, such as paper-cuts, lanterns, paintings, or sculptures. In some places, locals use the images when preparing food to celebrate traditional festivals. In more modern times people like to wear animal jewelry believing it will bring good luck.
However, no matter ancient or popular the system is, there are still many questions to be asked. Why should there be 12 animal signs? Why were these 12 animals chosen? When did the year-naming system originate? Why were the 12 animal signs arranged according to the current order? Why should dragon, a folktale animal that does not exist in real life, appear in the system? All these questions continue to puzzle the Chinese people.
Tales of Rat
In traditional belief, almost every animal in the zodiac has merit except for the rat. Oxen represent industriousness, tigers represent power, rabbits represent smartness, dragons represent dignity, horses represent vigor, goats represent gentleness, monkeys represent cleverness, roosters represent faithfulness, dogs represent loyalty, snakes represent flexibility, and pigs represent fortune.
But rats, from which the cycle of 12 animal signs start, do not imply anything positive. Actually, many idioms and phrases that include the character of rats have negative meanings, and there is even an old saying in China that if a rat passes by a street, every one would like to beat it. In some circumstances, rats even embody disasters or misfortune. Maybe, the low status of rats is related with their unpleasant appearance and their dirty habits.
So why do rats lead the other animals in the year-naming system? It is said that rats have made three great contributions to humanity. The first contribution is that rats have created the universe. In Chinese folk tales, the sky and the earth were originally not separated. One day, a little rat ran out, saw the confusion, and gave a big bite to the entanglement of the sky and the earth, which separated the sky and the earth finally. So, people consider the little rat the hero that has created a new era.
The second contribution is that rats bring about light to humanity. It is said that after the rat separated the sky and the earth, a big black cloud blocked out the sun. Neither people nor animals could see in such darkness. So, the little rat and its friends set out to steal the sunlight and light up the earth.
The third contribution is that rats stole seeds of grains to feed humanity. From that time people on the earth began to farm and feed themselves.
In the mythologies of some minorities in China, rats are considered as their ancestors and seen as part of the family.
The rat is also considered a creature that is very smart and rewards the good deeds of others, and in the past rats represented blessings, as the year of rat is called zi shu (zi is the first branch of the 12 Earth Branches, and shu is the pronunciation of rats in Chinese). Zi is also a character in Chinese language that means children. So, in folklore, people would usually hang a painting of rats in their houses to pray for the long continuance of their bloodline.
(Beijing Review February 4, 2008)