With the Lunar New Year coming up on January 22, you're likely to hear about the Chinese zodiac. This year, 2023, is the Year of the Rabbit — but what does that really mean? And, what is the Chinese zodiac all about? Will 2023's Year of the Rabbit usher in more luck than 2022's Year of the Tiger? Here's what to know:
According to Dr. Jenelle Kim, DACM, L.Ac., and author of Myung Sung: The Korean Art of Living Meditation, "2022 was the year of the Tiger, which was characterized as a fast-paced year of strength, vitality, and growth. However, much like the animals themselves, rabbits are much tamer in comparison. Therefore, we can expect 2023 to be a much calmer and more restful period." Kim also points out that the rabbit is the luckiest of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. "So, this year is said to bring prosperity, hope, and calm... Remember though that although rabbits are gentle, they are also agile and cunning. So in 2023, we will be able to navigate life more quickly and with more reflection all while avoiding stressors and dangers. This will also give us the opportunity to confidently and quietly overcome obstacles to our goals."
Want to learn more about the Chinese zodiac and the Lunar New Year to come? Read on.
What Is the Chinese Zodiac?
"The Chinese zodiac is a traditional classification system that consists of 12 animal signs — each of which corresponds to the 12-year cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar," explains Kim. These signs include: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. "Each year is associated with a specific animal sign, and people born in that year are said to have the characteristics of that sign," Kim says.
There is some speculation as to when the Chinese zodiac was developed and integrated into the Chinese lunar calendar. According to Kim, "the Chinese zodiac history can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD). The Chinese zodiac signs were used to represent the 12 Earthly Branches, which were used to record the time and also to indicate the hour, month, and year. The signs also became associated with certain characteristics and are believed to influence a person's personality and fate."
By the same token, according to History.com, historical records show that the lunar calendar was already in use during the Shang Dynasty in 14th cenury B.C. But according to History of Things, other archeologists think that the Chinese lunar calendar existed during the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who ruled during the 26th century B.C. The first record of the 12 zodiac signs comes from inscriptions on a tortoiseshell dating back to the Shang Dynasty in 1760 B.C.
Origin date aside, people around the world believe the predictions of the Chinese zodiac and follow the guidance it provides for daily life. In fact, the Chinese zodiac and its many variations remain popular in many East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, and play an influential role not only in Lunar New Year celebrations but in the culture and community as a whole.
The Legend Behind the Chinese Zodiac
The order of the animals in the Chinese zodiac comes from an ancient folktale with many variations and myths. One of the most widely known tales, according to China Travel Guide, is about the Jade Emperor who decreed a Great Race to the Heavenly Gates for the animals that would be named for each year on the calendar.
Legend has it that the Rat got to the river first and could not cross, so it hitched a ride on the Ox's back. As they approached the finish line, the Rat jumped off and dashed across, making the Rat the first animal in the Chinese zodiac (the Ox came in second). The strong and prideful Tiger arrived third, exhausted from its journey against the strong currents. The Rabbit made it soon after, having crossed the river by nimbly hopping on stepping stones.
The majestic Dragon soared over the finish line in fifth place after stopping by a town to help villagers in need. The Horse galloped across the river and was only a few strides away from the finish line when the clever and sly Snake slithered out from behind the Horse’s hooves, startling the Horse and claiming sixth place while the Horse got seventh.
Meanwhile, the Goat, Monkey, and Rooster managed to cross the river with teamwork. The resourceful Rooster found a raft, and the Goat and Monkey paddled while clearing weeds out of the way. They arrived together, and the Goat placed eighth, the monkey placed ninth, and the Rooster placed tenth. Despite being one of the strongest swimmers, the Dog took its time to frolic, play, and take a bath in the river, arriving in eleventh place. The Pig arrived last, having stopped to eat and take a nap, concluding The Great Race. Thus, the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac and their orders were decided.
The Chinese Zodiac Signs and Traits
Chinese zodiac horoscopes are an influential part of Chinese culture and superstitions. A person's Chinese zodiac is determined by their birth year, and a person's origin of life year, or ben ming nian, is any year that falls under their sign and occurs every 12 years. But don't think you're in for luck every 12 years. According to Your Chinese Astrology, a person's zodiac year is said to be a year filled with obstacles and, potentially, misfortune.
Here are the years and personality traits associated with each sign:
Birth Years: 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020
Personality Traits: Quick-witted, resourceful, and charming
Compatible with: Dragon, Ox, or Monkey
Birth Years: 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021
Personality Traits: Hard-working, patient, and stubborn
Compatible with: Snake, Rat, or Rooster
Birth Years: 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022
Personality Traits: Courageous, prideful, and ambitious
Compatible with: Dragon, Horse, or Dog
Birth Years: 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023
Personality Traits: Intuitive, even-tempered, finicky
Compatible with: Dog or Pig
Birth Years: 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024
Personality Traits: Confident, intelligent, and charismatic
Compatible with: Rat, Tiger, Snake, or Monkey
Birth Years: 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025
Personality Traits: Intelligent, wise, and enigmatic
Compatible with: Rooster, Ox, or Dragon
Birth Years: 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026
Personality Traits: Energetic, witty, and impatient
Compatible with: Tiger, Goat, or Dog
Birth Years: 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027
Personality Traits: Gentle, compassionate, and indecisive
Compatible with: Horse, Rabbit, or Pig
Birth Years: 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028
Personality Traits: Curious, funny, and erratic
Compatible with: Rat or Dragon
Birth Years: 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029
Personality Traits: Independent, practical, and controlling
Compatible with: Ox, Dragon, Snake, or Pig
Birth Years: 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030
Personality Traits: Faithful, generous, and prudent
Compatible with: Horse, Rabbit, Tiger, or Pig
Birth Years: 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031
Personality Traits: Noble, creative, and materialistic
Compatible with: Tiger, Rabbit, Goat or Dragon
How to Harness the Chinese Zodiac
So is there a way to use the Chinese zodiac to our advantage? If the Year of the Rabbit is one of reflection and calm, what can we do to make the most out of that energy? For starters, Kim says, one way to harness our Chinese zodiac sign is to understand the characteristics and traits associated with yours and try to embody those qualities.
"For example, if you are a Tiger, you are said to be courageous, confident, and independent, so you may try to be more assertive and take on leadership roles," Kim explains. "Another way to harness your Chinese zodiac sign is to use it as a guide for making decisions. Each sign has its own strengths and weaknesses, and understanding these can help you make decisions that align with your natural abilities and tendencies."
You can also take note of your sign's weaknesses, so you can work on developing qualities to overcome them.
You can also harness the energy of the year. According to Steven Zhang, Chinese zodiac expert and Chinese tea blogger of TeaJust.com, since 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit, which is a gentle and refined animal, you can drink teas that promote calm and tranquility, such as white teas or oolong teas. "Additionally, one could also reflect on the Rabbit's traits of diplomacy and tact in daily interactions with others," says Zhang, who learned about Chinese tea and Chinese traditional beliefs from his father and grandfather during his upbringing in China.
The Differences Between the Chinese Zodiac and Western Astrology
While there are some similarities between the Chinese zodiac and Western astrology — both contain 12 signs that are assigned based on time of birth and associated with specific personality traits — how the signs were derived differs greatly. The Chinese zodiac is rooted in an ancient folktale, whereas Western astrology is based on constellations formed by the stars as they move through the night sky. According to astrologer Stephanie Dempsey, the Chinese zodiac is based on the lunar calendar, which has a heavy emphasis on phases of the moon. Western astrology, however, is based on the solar calendar that follows the Earth's orbit around the sun.
As people around the world prepare for Lunar New Year celebrations, it's time to reflect on and bid farewell to the Year of the Tiger that was 2022, which was characterized as a fast-paced year. As we usher in the Year of the Rabbit, we can look forward to calm, hope, and prosperity.
Ysolt Usigan is a lifestyle writer and editor with 15+ years of experience working in digital media. She has created share-worthy content for publishers Shape, What To Expect, Cafe Mom, TODAY, CBS News, HuffPo, The Bump, Health, Ask Men, and Best Gifts. A working mom of two, her editorial expertise in parenting, shopping, and home are rooted in her everyday life.