With the Chinese New Year arriving this month in a flurry of celebration, the approaching year being deemed that of the snake will have many people delving into the intriguing facts and figures of the Chinese zodiac. Sarah Rees looks a little closer.
“What are you?” can be something that is demanded of the unsuspecting foreigner during the festivities of Chinese New Year, and it take a while to realise that the question relates to signs of the Chinese zodiac. Anyone and everyone who has been here in Malaysia in the past few weeks of build up to Chinese New Year will already be familiar with the twelve animals of the zodiac, each representing a year on a twelve-year cycle. A few taps into google will tell you which animal year is yours, a merry half hour can be spent ready about your “personality traits”. I am, it seems, “charming but pedantic”.
The idea and the so-called insights are easy to shake off as superstitious mumbojumbo, along with the idea of fortune tellers, mysterious strangers, and black cats a-wandering. Like many things we encounter during our time in Malaysia, however, there is more to the Chinese zodiac than meets the eye, and while delving deeper may not convert you the belief that it is true, it is quite intriguing to learn that the practice and history extends far beyond fluffy toys and fluffy predictions, and that many people have, over generations, paid a huge amount of attention to this form of astrology.
As with so many traditions with roots that disappear into the fog of history, the origin of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac is not known. The cutest story tells of a race the Emperor called between twelve animals, and their order of crossing the finish line has become the order of the year rotations. Other, more pragmatic suggestions, link the animals to the ancient Chinese astronomy and the use of Jupiter as a constant. Jupiter’s orbit takes twelve years to complete, and thus time was thought of in 12-year chunks, with each year having twelve months. The animals were picked to make it easier for people to remember what was what, and which year was coming.
However it came into being, the animals and the zodiac have existed as far as history recedes, and pottery artefacts confirm that the twelve symbols were popular as far back as the Tang Dynasty, which ran from 618-907A.D. It continues to be popular to this day, and while many just enjoy the novelty of the animals and delight in reading the shallow predictions, there are many that look deeper into the true art of the Chinese zodiac, and use it, for better or worse, to navigate their lives.
Pillars and People
It is common for people to only associate these animal signs with years, but animals are also assigned for months, days, and hours, so each person’s birth moment throws up a combination of four different animals. The month, day, and hour gives a person what is considered to be the inner, true, and secret animal, respectively.
The four animals are actually a cute way of referring to the Four Pillars of Destiny (or Ba Zi Astrology), and these were considered to decide your fate and allowing astrologers to make predictions or suggestions for people seeking guidance.
The “year” pillar was thought to provide information about the person’s family background or their relationship with their grandparents, while the month refers to the person’s parents or childhood and considered by some to be the most important facet in determining fate. The day pillar refers to the person’s adult life – who they are away from the family connection – and the hour pillar is thought to refer to a person’s children or their legacy; what contribution will the person make to life.
The different pillars and the interaction between the different animals were believed to be able to reveal much about a person and their destiny, and are also used to predict whether relationships will work, and whether two people are compatible for one another.
China and Beyond
The pillars and the various intricacies Chinese astrology is very much a part of Chinese culture and tradition, and is popular in many parts of Asia where the Chinese have, many years ago, found new homes.
For the majority of the world, there only interaction with this branch of astrology is when the animals come out at Chinese New Year, while both the Korean and Japanese New Year uses the twelve animals on their festive paraphernalia. Countries throughout the world make a point of heralding in the new year of the X, with special stamps appearing on letters from the UK and the US, while Google will always jazz up their homepage with an interactive image of the latest animal.
And yet, for all this worldwide knowledge, few people realise or understand the deeper significance and the intriguing practice of Ba Zi fortune telling, and it is a topic worth some time for anyone fascinated by what can seem to some, a magic art. The underlying message is a good one; your moment of birth can have an impact on who you are, but destiny is still in your hands.
Source: The Expat February 2013
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