What is Chinese Astrology?
Divination was commonplace in ancient China. The famous "Classic of Changes" (composed before the third century BCE) involved divination. However, Confucianism generally disapproved of divination and magic, preferring rationalism instead. Most Chinese governments have suppressed divination and prophecies as well, especially those reflecting negatively on the current rulers. Nevertheless, prophets sometimes appeared in folk religion promising followers a good life in this world and the next, and this was tolerated.
One way in which ancient prophetical practices have survived is through Chinese astrology. Chinese astrology is related to the Chinese calendar, particularly its 12-year cycle of animals (in the Chinese zodiac), and the fortune-telling aspects according to movement of heavenly bodies across the Chinese constellations in the sky.
Background of Chinese Astrology
The ancient Chinese astronomers called the five major planets by the names of the Five Elements. Venus is Metal (gold); Jupiter is Wood; Mercury is Water; Mars is Fire; Saturn is Earth. The position of the five planets, the sun, the moon and comets in the sky and the Chinese zodiac sign at the time a person was born determine the destiny of a person's life according to the Chinese astrology. A laborious system of computing one's fate and destiny based on one birthday and birth hours is still used regularly in modern day Chinese astrology. The twenty-eight Chinese constellations are quite different from the 88 Western constellations. For example, the belt of Orion is known as the "Happiness, Fortune, Longevity" trio of demigods. Xuan Wu is also known as the spirit of the northern sky or the spirit of Water in Taoism belief.
In addition to astrological readings of the heavenly bodies, the stars in the sky form the basis of many fairy tales. For example, the Summer Triangle is the trio of the cowherd (Altair), the spinster maid fairy (Vega) and the "tai bai" fairy (Deneb). The two forbidden lovers were separated by the silvery river (the Milky Way). Each year on the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese calendar, the birds form a bridge across the Milky Way. The cowherd carries their two sons (the two stars on each side of Altair) across the bridge to reunite with their fairy mother. The tai bai fairy acts as the chaperone of these two immortal lovers.
The twelve zodiac animal signs are, in order: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep (or goat), monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. There are many legends to explain the beginning of the zodiac. One of the most popular explanations reads, in summarized form, as follows: The rat was given the task to invite the animals to report to the Jade Emperor to be selected for the zodiac signs. The cat was a good friend of the rat, but the rat forgot to invite him. So the cat vowed to be the rat's natural enemy for ages to come.
Another popular legend has it that a race was used to decide the animals to report to the Jade Emperor:
All the animals lined up on the bank of a river and were given the task of getting to the opposite shore. Their order in the calendar would be set by the order in which the animals managed to reach the other side. The cat wondered how he would get across if he was afraid of water. At the same time, the ox wondered how he would cross with his poor eyesight. The calculating rat suggested that he and the cat jump onto the ox's back and guide him across. The ox was steady and hard-working so that he did not notice a commotion on his back. In the meanwhile, the rat snuck up behind the unsuspecting cat and shoved him into the water. Just as the ox came ashore, the rat jumped off and finished the race first. The lazy pig came to the far shore in twelfth place. And so the rat got the first year named after him, the ox got the second year, and the pig ended up as the last year in the cycle. The cat finished too late(thirteenth) to win any place in the calendar, and vowed to be the enemy of the rat forevermore. Some versions of the tale say that the cattle nominated a water buffalo to represent them because he was more proficient at water. The trade was acceptable because both animals are members of the family of bovids.
Another expands the race; the route ran through a forest, over ranges of plains and grasslands, and along a stream, before finally crossing a lake to the destination town.
Yet another variation tells of two different races. The first involved all the animals, in two divisions to avoid the fast animals dominating the top, and the top six in each division would "make the cut" for a second round. This format is rather like the one that the National Football League uses to determine its playoff teams (six from each conference).
There is also a cycle of the Five Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal (Gold), Water) on top of the cycle of animals. A person's year sign can be a gold dragon, a wood rooster etc. In ancient match-making practice in China, couples were brought together according to their compatible signs. For example, it is believed that dog and dog don't get along, but dog and pig do; a water dog supports a wood pig but dominates a fire pig in their relationship because water benefits wood, but controls fire according to the Chinese five elements' interaction.
The elements are also associated with colours, the traditional correspondence being green to Wood, red to Fire, brown to Earth, white to Metal, and black to Water. Some websites denote the years by the colour and zodiac sign (as opposed to animal sign and element).
The elements are combined with the binary Yin Yang cycle, which enlarges the element cyle to a cycle of ten. Even years are yang, odd years are yin. Since the zodiac animal cycle of 12 is divisible by two, every zodiac can only occur in either yin or yang: the dragon is always yang, the snake is always yin, etc. This combination creates a 60-year cycle, starting with Wood Rat and ending with Water Pig. The current cycle began in the year 1984.
Since the (traditional) Chinese zodiac follows the (lunisolar) Chinese calendar, the switch over date for the zodiac signs is the Chinese New Year, not January 1 as in the Gregorian calendar. However, there are some newer astrological texts which follow the Chinese Agricultural Calendar (the jie qi), and thus place the changeover of zodiac signs at the solar term li chun (beginning of Spring), at solar longitude 315 degrees.
The Chinese zodiac signs are used by cultures other than Chinese also. For one example, they often appear on Japanese New Year's cards. The United States Postal Service and those of several other countries issue a "Year of the ???" postage stamp each year to honor this Chinese heritage. However, those unfamiliar with the use of the Chinese lunar calendar usually just assume that the signs switch over on Jan 1 of each year.
Hours of the Day
n addition to years, the Chinese zodiac is also traditionally used to label times of day, with each sign corresponding to a "large-hour" or shichen, which is a two-hour period
The following hours are in Beijing local time.
- 23:00 - 01:00: rat
- 01:00 - 03:00: ox
- 03:00 - 05:00: tiger
- 05:00 - 07:00: rabbit
- 07:00 - 09:00: dragon
- 09:00 - 11:00: snake
- 11:00 - 13:00: horse
- 13:00 - 15:00: goat
- 15:00 - 17:00: monkey
- 17:00 - 19:00: rooster
- 19:00 - 21:00: dog
- 21:00 - 23:00: pig
- - "prophecy." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=34076>
- "Chinese astrology." Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_astrology>