Chinese New Year Signs & Symbols

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

If you live in the United States, you've probably celebrated New Year's Eve. But how much do you know about the Chinese New Year? This lesson explains the various signs and symbols associated with the Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year

Think for a moment about New Year's Eve in the United States. You've probably stayed up (or at least tried to stay up!) until midnight to watch the ball drop in Times Square. Maybe you've gone to see a fireworks display to ring in the new year. Depending on where you live in the country, you may eat black-eyed peas or pork and sauerkraut for good luck. You may even recognize common symbols like Father Time or the Baby New Year. In the U.S., we really celebrate on one, maybe two days: December 31 (New Year's Eve) and January 1 (New Year's Day). Across the globe, however, China has its own unique celebration called the Chinese New Year that lasts for 15 days. Just like in the United States, the Chinese New Year includes many different signs and symbols.

Chinese Zodiac

Have you ever looked up your horoscope to read your fortune for a given day, week, or month? If you have, then you're familiar with the Greek zodiac, 12 different symbols that represent 12 different parts of the year. Just like the Greeks, the Chinese have a zodiac of their own. Instead of representing a 12-month cycle like the Greeks, however, the Chinese zodiac operates on a 12-year cycle. Each year in the cycle is represented by a different animal, and each animal symbolizes different personality traits. The Chinese believe there is a connection between these animal traits and the characteristics of the people born during that animal's year. Read the descriptions below for each animal's qualities and the recent years they're associated with.

Rat (Zi)

Considered to be go-getters, rats are generally associated with generosity and the ability to adapt easily to new situations. At the same time, they're very aware and can be sneaky. Past Years of the Rat include 1984, 1996, and 2008.

Ox (Chon)

The ox is a very large, strong beast known for its leadership abilities, honesty, and devotion. Past Years of the Ox include 1985, 1997, and 2009.

Tiger (Yin)

The tiger is a very courageous animal known for its directness and honesty. Considered to be great leaders, tigers are also very sympathetic to the people around them. Past Years of the Tiger include 1986, 1998, and 2010.

Rabbit (Mao)

Have you ever seen a rabbit hopping around outside? If so, then you know that they're very gentle and peaceful creatures. According to Chinese tradition, the rabbit is also considered to be both capable and loving. Past Years of the Rabbit include 1987, 1999, and 2011.

Dragon (Chen)

According to the Chinese, the dragon is a strong, passionate, and smart creature. It also has a very fiery personality! Past Years of the Dragon include 1988, 2000, and 2012.

Snake (Si)

Snakes are wise, clever, and quiet creatures but they can also be very sneaky! Past Years of the Snake include 1989, 2001, and 2013.

Horse (Wu)

Horses are attractive, popular animals. Their warmth draws others to them, but they're not so good at keeping secrets. Past Years of the Horse include 1990, 2002, and 2014.

Sheep (Wei)

The sheep is associated with privacy and gentleness. Past Years of the Sheep include 1991, 2003, and 2015.

Monkey (Shen)

The monkey is considered to be a very social and friendly creature. In addition to being outgoing, it's also very self-centered. Past Years of the Monkey include 1992 and 2004 and 2016 is the Year of the Monkey.

Rooster (You)

The rooster is very capable and does well on its own. It's also associated with intelligence and impatience. Past Years of the Rooster include 1993 and 2005 and 2017 will be the Year of the Rooster.

Dog (Xu)

When you think of a dog, the phrase 'man's best friend' may come to mind. Just like in the United States, the dog is associated with loyalty in China. Past Years of the Dog include 1994 and 2006 and it will be the star again in 2018.

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