The animals of the Chinese calendar

To celebrate Chinese New Year, Billy Hui explains the significance of each of the Chinese Zodiac animals, illustrated with examples from the Lady Lever Art Gallery's collections and displays. Most of these animals are on display, so why not see if you can find them next time you visit, when the gallery has reopened?

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The Chinese New Year or Spring Festival started out as a celebration of when crops ripened on the banks of China’s Yellow River. The date for Chinese New year shifts around in our Gregorian calendar because the traditional Chinese calendar is based on a lunar cycle with 30 days in each month. It is for the same reason that Easter also falls on a different date each year.

The story, myth and legend of the 12 animals of the Chinese New Year calendar originates from an ancient Chinese poem telling the story of 12 mythical animals which descended from the heavens to help people celebrate the coming of spring and a new crop. In the poem we hear about how the animals came down to earth every two hours with their combined journey representing a whole 24 hour day and in turn a symbol of one’s lifetime. The animals appeared in a certain order starting with the Rat and ending with the Pig which, in much later years, led to the story of the animals racing each other in a tale which is often told to children.

The Chinese New Year animals change annually on a twelve year cycle but there are also five different types of each animal represented by the five elementary elements from Chinese culture - earth, wood, fire, water and metal. This year is the Chinese New Year of The Metal Ox.

Ox 

1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021

The Ox is bright, patient and inspiring to others. This strong sign of the calendar is happy to be by themselves, yet can make an outstanding friend and companion. Look for the Snake or Chicken for good compatibility but try to avoid the Sheep, who could bring trouble!

Tiger

1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010

naked figure surrounded by large cats, including tigers in the background

The Tiger has a mixture of traits and can be aggressive, courageous, candid and sensitive all at the same time! A Chinese symbol of power and often compared with emperors and kings. Find the Horse or the Dog for happiness but beware of the mischievous Monkey.

This painting of Orpheus from the Lady Lever's collection includes tigers in the background. It isn't currently on display but visitors may remember seeing it in the main hall recently.

Rabbit

1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011

ceramic rabbit chewing lettuce

The luckiest of all signs in the Chinese calendar. The Rabbit is talented and articulate, affectionate yet shy. This clever sign of the Chinese Zodiac seeks peace throughout life. The Jade Rabbit is a main character in the story of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Compatible with the Sheep or the Pig but the opposite sign to the Chicken.

Dragon

1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012

decorative plate with two dragons

The most famous of the Chinese Zodiac animals, the Dragon is strong and independent and is a great leader yet they will seek support and reassurance from others. Can sometimes be eccentric but very passionate and have abundant health. The Dragon is compatible with the Monkey or Rat but try to avoid the Dog.

Snake

1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013

sculpture of a woman with a snake coiled around her

The Snake is wise and very intense with a tendency towards physical beauty. This member of the Chinese zodiac can often be vain with a fiery temperament. The Snake has different meanings for different parts of Chinese culture, with some believing the Snake is a strong protector whilst others believe it can be untrustworthy. Look for the Chicken or the Ox for happiness. The Pig is your enemy.

Horse

1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014

Stubbs on horseback, in decorative frame

The Horse is popular and is very attractive to others. This Chinese calendar sign is often ostentatious and impatient. Despite these traits, this lively character is considered to be warm-hearted and enthusiastic. The Horse needs to be with people and does not like to be alone. Compatible with the Tiger or the Dog but never the Rat.

Sheep/Goat

1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015

goat's head carved in marble mantelpiece

This timid sign of the Chinese Calendar prefers anonymity to standing out from the crowd. The Sheep is elegant and creative, compassionate and amicable. They will avoid confrontation, where possible, and their natural insecurity will drive them to look for protection and love. Most compatible with the Pig and Rabbit but never the Ox so be careful this year!

Monkey

1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016

monkey carved into small jade bottle

This mischievous sign of the Chinese Zodiac is very intelligent and a great influencer of people. The Monkey is an enthusiastic achiever and quick learner but is easily distracted and confused plus can be readily discouraged when the going gets tough. Very sociable and witty making this sign well loved - but be careful if you turn your back on this character! The Monkey needs to avoid the Tiger but seek out the Rat or the Dragon for happiness.

Chicken/Rooster

1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017

bowl decorated with a rooster

The Chicken or Rooster is a pioneer in spirit and is devoted to work, with a great thirst for knowledge. This focus on work and knowledge can mean that this character is often seen as selfish and eccentric. Chickens are often blessed with physical beauty and will usually be the best dressed in the room and will want to be noticed. The Rabbit can bring trouble for the Chicken  but the Snake and the Ox can be lifelong friends.

Dog

1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018

glass dog ornament

Both loyal and honest, the Dog works well with others. This character can be lazy at times but will always be looking for the next adventure or challenge. A mix of traits will mean the Dog is very generous but can be stubborn and selfish at the same time! Quick witted and candid, the Dog is compatible with the Horse and Tiger but beware of the Dragon!

Pig

1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019

pigs sleeping under a tree by a man raking

Noble and considerate, the Pig is a symbol of luck and wealth in Chinese culture. This sign of the Chinese Zodiac will have lifelong friends but unfortunately be prone to marital strife! The Pig is considered to be sincere and genuine with a warm heart which means that this character is well liked and loved. Well, except by their partners! The Pig needs to avoid other Pigs but look to the Rabbit and the Sheep for friendship.

Rat

1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020

Chinese lanterns, one with a rat on it

The Rat is ambitious and honest. Prone to spending freely, they seldom make lasting relationships unfortunately! They are most compatible with Dragons and Monkeys but least compatible with the Horse. But Year Of The Ox is a good year for the Rat!