Friday, January 16, 2009

Apple #364: Year of the Ox

As this week comes to a close, I know what everyone is thinking about. The anticipation is palpable. People are making plans, preparing food, planning parties. It's clear that everyone is looking forward to January 26, the date of Chinese New Year, when it will become the Year of the Ox.

I've got my finger on the pulse of the people, I tells ya.

  • The dates of Chinese New Year mark the beginning of a new lunar year, according to a calendar established by a Chinese Emperor named Huang Ti in 2600 B.C.
  • If we Westerners were keeping track of dates according to this calendar, as opposed to the International/Gregorian calendar which we use now, we would be referring to January 26 as the first day of Lunar Year 4706. (Some count the cycles differently and think it should actually be 4705.)

One month in a typical Chinese calendar. Even if the characters weren't in Chinese, I think I would still be confused.
(Image from Volatile Yard's blog about computing, math, and physics)

  • People living in China, Korea, and Vietnam do use this calendar. They'll be celebrating their new year on the 26th by decorating their homes with lots of flowers and fruits which are signs of new life, lots of visits with all sorts of family members, and remembering their ancestors.
  • Many cities also have parades that include the traditional lion and dragon dance. The dragon is a symbol of good luck and fertility. It is also said that the dragon lives in the heart of every person. So the more undulations the dragon makes, the stronger its spirit. The longer the dragon, the longer it will live. The lion is also a symbol of good luck, so when the two of them are dancing together, that's supposed to bring a lot of good luck to the coming year.

The dragon during a New Year parade in London, 2005. Often the people carrying the dragon will do lots of undulations and circlings during a parade, signifying the dragon's vitality.
(Photo from Nam Yang Pugilistic Association, Surrey)

Lots of lions were in the parade, too. Later, there was a dance in a square between these lions and the dragon.
(Photo from Nam Yang Pugilistic Association, Surrey)

  • The Chinese calendar seems very complex to me. It tracks both the moon and the sun's movements, and sometimes also Jupiter's. The days, months, and years are reckoned by both the sun and the moon.
  • The years are counted using a two systems of reckoning paired together, which some people refer to as the Stem-Branch system.
  • The Heavenly Stem is like a color-element sign. There are 5 of these. The elements are described by colors that most closely resemble their properties.
  1. White Metal
  2. Black Water
  3. Green Wood
  4. Red Fire
  5. Brown Earth.
  • Each of the five properties repeats two years in a row, once for its yin (feminine) and again for its yang (masculine) attributes.
  • Earthly Branch is the second part of a year's name. This part uses the name of one of 12 animals. There are 12 of these.
  1. Rat
  2. Ox (sometimes translated as cow)
  3. Tiger
  4. Rabbit
  5. Dragon
  6. Snake
  7. Horse
  8. Sheep (sometimes goat)
  9. Monkey
  10. Rooster
  11. Dog
  12. Pig

Mosaic of the 12 animals in the Chinese calendar, from the courtyard of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver.
(Photo from mag3737 on Flickr)

  • The color-element part with its yang and then its yin gets linked up with the animal part, which gives you each year's full name. For example:
  1. 2002 = Black Water Yang Horse
  2. 2003 = Black Water Yin Sheep
  3. 2004 = Green Wood Yang Monkey
  4. 2005 = Green Wood Yin Chicken
  5. 2006 = Red Fire Yang Dog
  6. 2007 = Red Fire Yin Pig
  7. 2008 = Brown Earth Yang Rat
  8. 2009 = Brown Earth Yin Ox, etc.
  • Using this system, the years get a distinct name every 60 years.
  • There is so much more going on with this calendar, I am only skimming the surface.
  • I can't tell you why, but all I know is that most of the time, people ignore the heavenly stem part with their yang and yin, and only refer to the years by the earthly branch, or the animals.


Most pictures of the Chinese zodiac include only the animals, sometimes with their characters, sometimes with the years. I didn't see any that also included the heavenly stems, or elements. A more complex one is here, but I don't know what all the other characters mean.
(Image from Annette's Chinese zodiac page)

  • Perhaps the reason people only talk about the animal part of the year designation is because a whole mythos has been built up around the earthly branches, or the animals.
  • The story goes that Buddha called the animals together to celebrate new year's day with him, and only 12 were loyal enough to show up. To reward them, he named a year after each one.
  • The story gets more detailed, with descriptions of who arrived first and when or how, which in turn tells us something about each animal's personality.
  • For example, Ox arrived first, but Rat was riding on his back and jumped off and ran ahead, so Rat got to be the first animal in the list.
  • According to some renditions, Dog and Pig didn't actually show up, but their names were included on the list because of what was essentially a clerical error.

Character representing Ox. The guy who was essentially Buddha's secretary wrote down the wrong characters, and that's how Dog and Pig got on the list.
(Image from Ching Oracle)

  • So the animals each have their own personalities. Thus, according to Chinese astrology, each year has the personality of its animal. So, too, will all the people born during that year. So if you're born during the Year of the Ox, you will have a bit of the ox in your heart, as the saying goes.

The ox is helpful and loyal
(Drawing by Fa Lian Shakya, sourced from Poems on the Oxherding Series)

  • [This is very similar to Western astrology, in the way people say things like, if you're born during the end of February, which is the Pisces or fish sign, you'll have the personality of everyone else during that month, which is to say imaginative yet sometimes too idealistic, compassionate yet sometimes too easily led, dreamy yet secretive and vague.]
  • So if you were born in any one of the following years, which are Years of the Ox, you are supposed to have the traits associated with that animal sign:
  1. 1913
  2. 1925
  3. 1937
  4. 1949
  5. 1961
  6. 1973
  7. 1985
  8. 1997
  9. 2009
  • Let's take an example and see how this plays out. One of the people born in a Year of the Ox is Barack Obama.
  • (See? There is a method to my madness after all.)
  • So, according to the Chinese Lunar astrology, Barack Obama and the year 2009 are supposed to have these following personality traits:
  • (positive traits) Patient, dependable, hard-working, calm, honest, reliable, logical, well-organized, work best when alone
  • (negative traits) Stubborn, narrow-minded, lacking in imagination, tend not to say much, not very sociable, shy

The ox can also be stubborn
(Drawing by Fa Lian Shakya, sourced from Poems on the Oxherding Series)

  • The Metal Ox (1961, the year Obama was born) people tend to be even harder workers than their fellow oxes. Especially bold and strong-willed, sometimes to the point of being ruthless. Fierce defender of the truth.
  • The Earth Ox (2009) is supposed to be a year of calm, good judgment, modest ambitions, stable reliability.

Poster of the Year of the Ox by Swan Design, available for $50

Meanwhile, economists in the US and in China are predicting a lot of instability, possible military strife, and general unpleasantness in the coming year. We'll have to see how it all plays out.

Sources, Chinese New Year 2009
Wolff-Michael Roth's page on Chinese New Year
China Beautiful, Chinese New Year by the Chinese Calendar
Calendars through the Ages, The Chinese Calendar
Chinese Fortune Calendar, 2009 Chinese New Year Days (I found this site confusing until after I'd looked at a few other explanations)
Mark Schumacher, Onmark Productions, Zodiac Lore
China Orbit, The Chinese zodiac, Year of the Ox 2009 Predictions and Forecast
US Bridal Guide, Chinese Horoscopes, The Ox
The Economist, China in 2009: Year of the Ox, December 22, 2008

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