One of the most accessible ideas in Chinese culture is the zodiac. In 2023, we will move from the Year of the Tiger to the Year of the Rabbit. In this post, I’ll explain why not all babies born in 2023 are Rabbits.
This is the third post I’ve written about Chinese New Year. If you’d like to see the others, here is How Do You Say Happy New Year in Chinese, and reminiscing with Celebrating Chinese New Year with Po Po’s Famous Pork Belly, Potato, and Taro Dish.
What calendar are we using?
Before we go further, you’ll need to know three terms if you’ve never considered how a year can be divided into dates. Bearing in mind calendar derivation has a long and mathematically complex history, here’s a summary:
- Gregorian Calendar – the most commonly used calendar used today – even in China – divided into 365 1/4 days (really, 365.2425 but let’s stick with simple math), the extra day being counted every fourth year by adding it to the shortest month: February 29th, called “leap year”1
- Lunisolar Calendar – a calendar that follows both moon (“luni-“) and sun (“solar”); the lunar periods are divided into twelve periods per year but because a lunar month doesn’t quite add up to a solar year (the full period of the earth travelling around the sun), a “leap month” is periodically added2
- Solar Calendar – (because why have one when you have two), the origin of the Spring Festival (which mostly coincides with Chinese New Year) / li chun (立春, the first solar period); also called an “agricultural calendar” in Chinese (农历)3
In case you missed it, China follows all three at once. Phew.
The Western Zodiac
We get the Western zodiac from the Greeks, who themselves got it from the Mesopotamians.4 As you’re aware, there are twelve astrological signs in the Gregorian calendar, beginning with Aries (Mar 21 to Apr 20) and ending with Pisces (Feb 19 to Mar 20). The dates are static year over year, so much so that if you were able to determine your grandmother was born February twenty-fifth a hundred years ago, she was a Pisces. The order never varies: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. It’s thought that babies born on the dates the zodiac changes are “on the cusp,” that is, they have the characteristics of both. For example, the sign that follows Aries is Taurus, so a child born on April 20th would be “on the cusp” of Aries and Taurus. In this astrology, one’s characteristics are based on the twelve monthly signs. This zodiac style could roughly be described as monthly.
The Chinese Zodiac
With the Chinese zodiac, there are also twelve signs, but they are based on year of birth. Leaving aside the calendar differences for the moment, the zodiac has a twelve year cycle, beginning with the Rat and ending with the Pig. This means that everyone born in the same lunisolar year has the same sign, and they share their sign with people born in multiples of twelve years before and after. For example, babies born in 2023 will be Rabbits along with future babies born in 2035 (2023+12) and 2047 (2023+12+12). The Chinese zodiac order also doesn’t vary: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. This zodiac style is duodecennial, or occurring once every twelve years.
For more, here’s an article about the twelve signs.5 Note the article gives only the years in which the signs occur and it doesn’t mention the exceptions for babies born in the first two months of the year. A surprising number of people fall into this category as you’ll see below.
When is Chinese New Year’s and why is it so hard to keep straight?
When I was growing up, deriving the date for Chinese New Year (CNY) was akin to dark magic. We never understood when it was, and my grandparents kept track by consulting their Chinese lunisolar calendar. They also followed it for their birthdays, so we had three important events we couldn’t understand.
Annually we’d ask, “When is Chinese New Year? then, “”When is your birthday?” then, “When is grandpa’s birthday?” There’s nothing like not knowing something simple to make you feel dumb.
Chinese New Year falls between Jan 21 and Feb 20
Let’s talk about how the CNY date is calculated. We’ll do this by comparing the Gregorian and lunisolar calendars. The New Year is derived using a lunisolar calendar and falls between Jan 21st and Feb 20th on the Gregorian calendar. The date of Chinese New Year is set to coincide with both the new moon (lunar) and lichun (立春, the first solar period), and changes every year. In addition, there’s no simple pattern, like “ten days after CNY last year.” Put simply, the Chinese calendar is complicated (and I haven’t even mentioned the “earthly branches and heavenly stems” sixty-year cycle which adds five elements to the mix).6 For now let’s focus on the Chinese New Year date.
Table Comparing CNY Dates (2012-23)
For January and February babies in any given Gregorian year, the births happening in the first twenty-one to fifty-one days will not be the same Chinese zodiac as their peers. In 2023, this means all babies born January 1-21 will be Tigers, not Rabbits. Just for fun, I put together a table of the previous twelve years to see the variance of dates and calculated percentage of the population affected.
|Year||Zodiac||Chinese New Year||Number of days where the correct zodiac is the previous year||Previous column as a percentage of year (based on 365 days)|
|2023||Rabbit||22 Jan 2023||21||5.8%|
|2022||Tiger||1 Feb 2022||31||8.5%|
|2021||Ox||12 Feb 2021||42||11.5%|
|2020||Rat||25 Jan 2020||24||6.6%|
|2019||Pig||5 Feb 2019||35||9.6%|
|2018||Dog||16 Feb 2018||46||12.6%|
|2017||Rooster||28 Jan 2017||27||7.4%|
|2016||Monkey||8 Feb 2016||38||10.4%|
|2015||Sheep||19 Feb 2015||49||13.4%|
|2014||Horse||31 Jan 2014||30||8,2%|
|2013||Snake||10 Feb 2013||40||11.0%|
|2012||Dragon||23 Jan 2012||22||6.0%|
Interestingly, in the past twelve instances, five years – 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2021 – have over ten percent of the population as zodiacs of the previous (common) calendar year. January and February babies, take note.
How to look up the Chinese Zodiac on the day you were born
If you type “how to calculate my Chinese zodiac” on the internet, you’ll get all sorts of sites that will provide your age, horoscope, and zodiac sign. You could go that route. Personally I think typing your date of birth into some random website is asking to be hacked and besides, isn’t it more fun to learn to calculate it yourself? Here is my favourite method.
You will need your date of birth and the aforementioned Reader’s Digest7 article to get started. Look up your general Chinese zodiac sign. Let’s do this with 1969 (Rooster) -1970 (Dog) as our example. Go to “Calendar Conversion” on this site by Yuk Tung Liu.8 Enter your year of birth at the top and hit “Submit.” The site will give you a series of calendars for the year. We are using the month of February because that’s when the Chinese New Year occurred: 6 Feb 1970.
Phew, there’s a lot going on here. Let’s take it one step at a time:
- Top left: February 1970 in the Gregorian calendar
- Top right: the years and months in the lunisolar calendar; gēng xū (庚戌) is the forty seventh year G11 of the 60 year cycle, e.g. 19709
- Bottom four rows: note there are two months here, represented by the last lunar month of the previous year and the first lunar month of the new year; “12-25” is the twelfth month, twenty-fifth day
- The first day of the new year is February 6: “01-01” : the first month and first day
If you were born between Jan 1st and Feb 5th in 1970:
You might have been born in 1970, but you are Year of the Rooster.
If you were born after Feb 6, 1970:
There’s no confusion. You can follow the simple calculations and you are Year of the Dog.
I started off with zodiacs and ended up with math. I wrote this post in honour of Chinese New Year and the changing of the years from Tiger to Rabbit. In 2023, I feel we could all use some good fortune. And it doesn’t matter if you believe or don’t believe in astrology.10 What matters is if your ancestors believed. Chinese culture has long associations with ideas around luck and prophecy, governing every aspect of life from birth to death. I like to check the signs of the people I’m researching, to get a sense of what they might have thought. The next topic I’d like to tackle is the belief system that added a year to a newborn’s age. What was that all about?
Sharp-eyed readers will notice I didn’t mention Chinese zodiac “cusp” babies. Because the Chinese New Year happens on the date the new moon and first solar period begins, a cusp baby falls in-between. I read one astrologer’s opinion that the Chinese zodiac cusp occurs Feb 4-5, which is interesting given how the date for Chinese New Year varies year to year. I’ll keep my ears open for more and will report back.
For this post, I’m indebted to my friend and member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Heather Laird, for her help in researching the lunisolar, Gregorian, and solar calendars.
1Edmund Robertson and John O’Connor, “A Brief History of Time and Calendars,” November 2022, online archive, MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland, MacTutor (https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Astronomy/bhistory/ : accessed 20 Jan 2023).
2Helmer Asiaksen, “Heavenly Mathematics: The Mathematics of the Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Gregorian Calendars,” undated, thesis, Singapore, National University of Singapore, Academia.edu (https://www.academia.edu/6842007/The_Mathematics_of_the_Chinese_Calendar : accessed 20 Jan 2023); Tania Yeromiyan, “What is the Chinese Calendar,” 27 Mar 2022, blog, Chinese Language Institute (https://studycli.org/chinese-zodiac/chinese-calendar/ : accessed 19 Jan 2022).
4“Astrology,” Britannica, 2023, online encyclopedia, Britannica Group (https://www.britannica.com/summary/astrology : accessed 19 Jan 2023).
5Taylor Markarian, “The 12 Chinese astrology signs and what they mean for you,” 17 Jan 2023, blog, Readers Digest (https://www.rd.com/article/what-is-my-chinese-zodiac-sign/ : accessed 19 Jan 2023).
6Kelly Summers, “Introduction to Chinese Family History: Chinese Genealogy Basics,” in Chinese Ancestry: Research Methods and Sources (Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Genealogical Society, 2020), 16.
7Ibid. Taylor Markarian, “The 12 Chinese astrology signs and what they mean for you.”
8Yuk Tung Liu, “Calendar Conversion,” 2023, database lookup, Yuk Tung Liu (https://ytliu0.github.io/ChineseCalendar/index.html : accessed 18 Jan 2023).
9“Chinese English Pinyin Dictionary,” undated, database lookup, Yabla (https://chinese.yabla.com/chinese-english-pinyin-dictionary.php : accessed 19 Jan 2023).
8“Purposes of astrology,” Britannica, 2023, online encyclopedia, Britannica Group (https://www.britannica.com/topic/astrology/Purposes-of-astrology : accessed 19 Jan 2023).