The virtual Levy Lecture on Sept. 28 featured Yvonne Wolf, an expert in intercultural communications, presenting an exploration of the power of the Chinese zodiac.
The Chinese zodiac is based on a lunar calendar. There are 12 animals that rotate on a prescribed and predictable yearly cycle, and are usually shown on a wheel.
The current Chinese zodiac year is the Year of the Ox. Chinese New Year annually starts with the new moon that falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20 of the Gregorian calendar. In 2022, Feb. 1 will usher in the Year of the Tiger.
The cycle of the zodiac begins with the Rat, followed by the Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Wolf clarified that the definitions for what “qualifies” within each animal come from an ancient concept that is broader than contemporary definitions. For instance, under the label of “Ox,” one could include cow, yak, water buffalo, bison and buffalo.
The only mystical animal in the Chinese zodiac is the Dragon. The Dragon is the favorite zodiac animal in every East Asian country, so much so that people will expedite or delay major events like marriage and conceiving a child just so the event occurs during the Year of the Dragon. According to Wolf, throughout China and numerous East Asian countries, there is always a sizable spike in each country’s birth rate during Dragon years. The ripple effects of this bump are long-lasting: more teachers are needed when the children become ready for school, college acceptances and competition for jobs is more intense and there are housing shortages when that cohort starts to look for apartments. No matter what the impact is, many parents want a child of theirs to be born during a Dragon year.
The wheel of the Chinese zodiac stems from Daoism. Daoism is an Asian philosophy that is thousands of years old, older than Confucianism. The Chinese zodiac is based on observations of the natural world, and provides guidance in life based upon rules in nature. Each animal on the zodiac wheel represents a blend of virtues and weaknesses. There are no “good” animals or “bad” ones; every animal, even the rat and the snake, is valued.
People born under a particular animal’s sign are thought to embody many of that animal’s characteristics, both positive and negative. But people, unlike animals, have ability to be self-aware, as well as the ability to change. Thus the Chinese zodiac is not a symbol of predetermination, but more a system to help people guide and organize their lives.
Traditionally the Chinese zodiac is useful for helping individuals to identify their personal strengths, which can be used to guide major life decisions such as selecting a field of study, one’s profession or even one’s mate. Traditionally it’s used during dating and courtship, and used by parents to protect children from illness and mishaps, and to enhance social relationships. It is relied on in business and taken into consideration when teams or groups are being organized. No matter how modern or advanced a business may be, the influence of the Chinese zodiac still permeates.
Here is a link to determine one’s Chinese zodiac animal, and a different link to a compatibility calculator that evaluates the potential between two zodiac animals. Wolf relies on the Chinese zodiac as a mnemonic device to determine the years in which her friends were married or their children were born. The cycle of 12 helps people count, schedule and calculate.
The Chinese zodiac can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. People must think about how rational these predictions are.
Wolf cited an example of how she and a colleague were predicted not to work well together, when the exact opposite is true. Another example is around the subject of childbirth; there are no bad times to have a baby.
Still, Wolf acknowledged that some superstitions can be difficult to negotiate. She shared that if an engaged couple is trying to book an event space on a particular date and that date is deemed to be inauspicious, the people at the venue may try to convince the couple to change the date, and as a last resort, make the date unavailable. No one wants to be associated with or work around a situation believed to be infused with bad luck. It is not unlike trying to throw a gala event on Friday the 13th. It could be done, but the host must consider a possible lower turnout.
Another added layer, which Wolf only touched on briefly, is the five elements (water, earth or soil, metal or gold, wood and fire) which are believed to explain the forces between phenomena. Each cycle of the 12 zodiac animals corresponds to a particular phase (rotating designation). The complete cycle takes 60 years to complete, which is why life is said to begin at 60 in Chinese and East Asian culture. In earlier times, by the age of 60, the typical person in China had already married, birthed and raised children, maybe even had grandchildren. Sixty thus is an age of achievement; 60-year-olds have experienced the highs and lows, personally and professionally, of living a full life and survived. They might even have wisdom. They know how to exist in the world, and the freedom that comes from that knowledge is like a new beginning.
Today the Chinese zodiac is still a powerful influence in China and many East Asian countries. Readers are invited to watch an encore of Wolf’s presentation on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.