Guides & Advice

A guide to the Chinese zodiac through art

Written by Tom Flanagan | 19 January 2023

Knowing your zodiac sign has become second-nature to younger generations, with the Chinese zodiac of the lunar calendar in particular holding much allure. While historically it stems from the Twelve Earthly Branches used to tell the time, most people know the Chinese zodiac for the animals – and the alleged characteristics – that represent each branch. These animals have been deciphered and interpreted over the years, but they’ve also been replicated in Chinese art. We asked our Expert in Asian Art, Alexandra Xu, to walk us through the Chinese Zodiac, as well as art pieces created in honour of each animal. 

In the Chinese zodiac, the 12 animals in order include: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. While the Chinese zodiac is widely known for these animals, Expert in Asian Art Alexandra Xu explains that the animals we know and love are more of an addition than a central tenet of the system. 

“In the ancient calendar system in China, the counting of the years is represented by the Sexagenary cycles which consist of Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches based on astrological observations,” explains Alexandra. “By the time of the East Han dynasty, the Twelve Earthly Branches were given 12 corresponding animals in order to visualise the branches and that is the origin of the Chinese zodiac animal signs.”

Fukuoka Shrine and the 12 animals. Wikimedia Commons.

From the rat to the dragon, artists have long found inspiration in these animals while people are still drawn to what each animal might represent, whether for its beauty or nature. But do you know what your zodiac animal is? Here’s our guide to each animal and an artwork that reflects their individual power. 

Rat (鼠 Shu)

1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008…

Symbolises: Wealth

In China, the god of granary is a rat and people often say that the year of the rat brings good harvest. The presence of rats means the granary is full and the society is prosperous. While there is no commonly accepted meaning for the rat, popular culture tends to see the rat – and those born in the year of the rat – as charming, imaginative and inventive, especially when it comes to money and social relationships.

This rat-inspired piece is a water coupe from the Qing dynasty. Water coupes were ornamental pieces of art used in ancient China and this rat hopefully served as an omen of bounty for anyone who kept it close by.

'Water coupe in the shape of a mouse'. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ox (牛 Niu)

Year: 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009…

Symbolises: Diligence

The importance of Ox in agriculture means it has and will always occupy a place in the pantheon of Chinese mythology. In China, the Ox symbolises honesty, hard work, the coming of spring, so expect those born in the year of the ox to embody these qualities. You will sometimes see an ox painted on porcelain next to a farmer telling a romantic story between a mortal and a heavenly maiden. In the case below, this quiet piece of art is pulled from a collection called ‘Landscapes’; a gentle and pastoral portrayal of rural China and the oxen that workers relied on. 

'Landscapes' by Ye Xin. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Tiger (虎 Hu)

Year: 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010…

Symbolises: Protection

The Tiger has long been associated with protection in China. It is a common practice to hang a tiger painting in the main hall of a Chinese family home during the new year and tiger shaped hats and shoes are popular gifts for children. Those born in the year of the Tiger are said to be blessed with bravery and respect.  And this scroll from the Ming dynasty encapsulates the prowling, protective instincts of the tiger. 

'Tiger with cubs and magpies'. The Smithsonian

Rabbit (兔 Tu)

Year: 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011…

Symbolises: Peace

The rabbit in China is an auspicious animal meaning good fortune and long life. Superstition would suggest that those who embody the rabbit's traits are quiet, gentle, peaceful and diplomatic. Legend has maintained that there is a rabbit living on the moon and accompanying Goddess Chang´e – which might be why this artwork captures a rabbit gazing at the moon. 

' Rabbit gazing at the moon and stars besides a blossoming osmanthus, lingzhi fungus, and autumn leaves'. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Dragon (龙, Long)

Year: 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012…

Symbolises: Strength

The Dragon has a long history in Chinese mythology and is associated with great power and strength. It is the only mythical creature of the 12 animals depicted and more people are born in the year of the dragon in China than any other; as the dragon’s traits of strength are seen  by some as the most desirable. In art, it is often used in official objects in Chinese court to symbolise imperial power like in this Wanli marked dish.

'Dish with dragon amid waves'. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Snake (蛇 She)

1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013…

Symbolises: Wisdom

Snake worship has a long tradition in China. In fact, the idea of the dragon may have evolved from the snake. Snakes are the symbol of fertility and wisdom, and many Chinese ancestral gods have the head or body of a snake in imagery. Those born in the year of the snake are believed to be fiercely good communicators, known for their wisdom when saying very little. 

Funerary sculpture - Snake. LACMA.

Horse (马 Ma)

1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014...

Symbolises: Success

In China, the horse means success. When you send someone good wishes on their journey, you often say Madao Chenggong ("you will be successful as soon as your horse arrives"). There’s a roaming optimism and freedom to the horse, as for anyone born in the year of the horse. In Chinese legend, there is a big stable in heaven and heavenly horses made frequent appearances in art decoration, such as in Transition period porcelain ware, like this ewer below, showcasing a heavenly horse coming out of a river.

'Covered ewer'. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Sheep/Goat (羊 Yang)

Year: 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015...

Symbolises: Beauty

Some of the most ancient Chinese tribes have sheep in their totems and sheep have always been associated with beautiful things in life. In fact, the Chinese characters such as beauty, delicacy and auspicious are based on the character of sheep. Often, three sheep would appear together in Chinese art, symbolising good fortune in the spring. And for those born in the year of the sheep, they are considered to be gifted with creativity. 

'Three goats'. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Monkey (猴 Hou)

Year: 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016…

Symbolises: Growth

The pronunciation of monkey in Chinese is a homophone of the Chinese character for the title of Marquis, and so you will often find the monkey depicted in Chinese work of art, symbolising advancement in an official's career. The monkey is also associated with quickness, wit and intelligence, so expect these traits to surface if you're born in a year ruled by the monkey. 

'Album of the Yongzheng Emperor in Costumes'. Wikimedia Commons.

Rooster (鸡 Ji)

Years: 1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017…

Symbolises: Luck

The rooster in Chinese culture is called the bird of five good characters: being scholarly, valiant, brave, benevolence and trustworthy. Those born in the year of the rooster are considered to be thoughtful and independent. And the word rooster is also the homophone for the word lucky in Chinese, which is why you’ll often find roosters often appearing in decorations and artworks across China.

'A Cock and Bamboos', formerly attributed to Emperor Huizong. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Dog (狗 Gou)

Year: 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018…

Symbolises: Loyalty

China is one of the original sites of domestication of dogs and Chinese culture has long appreciated the loyalty and companionship of dogs which can often be seen together with children in art. Those associated with the dog are said to embody its traits of honour, loyalty and friendship. This piece embodies the playfulness often linked to dogs and those born in the year of the dog.

'Puppies Playing beside a Palm Tree and Garden Rock'. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pig (猪 Zhu)

Year: 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019…

Symbolises: Prosperity

The Chinese character for home is composed of the character for pig under the roof, which pretty much says everything about the importance of pig for the prosperity of the Chinese family. Those born in the year of the pig are said to embody the pig’s fortune, known to be honest, patient, sincere and understanding. “Feizhou Gongmen” (a fat pig is knocking on your door) is one of the best greetings you can say to others during the Lunar New Year. Miniature pig models are common finds in ancient Chinese art assemblies and the below piece is an excellent illustration of the relationship the pig has with the home as a central symbol of good fortune.

'Pigsty'. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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