Happy Chinese New Year! What Animal are You?

I just found out that it is now my year. On Sunday, February 14, we entered the year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese calendar.

One might be tempted to dismiss Chinese New Year as some exotic holiday celebrated in a faraway land which hasnt yet figured out what January first means. After all, weve been using the “proper” calendar for over 400 years, so we should have this thing pretty well perfected by now. Whats that, you say? The Chinese have been using their calendar for over ten times that long and its observed in dozens of countries including our own, by over 3.6 million Chinese Americans?

The Chinese calendar, much like the one we use, is Lunar/solar based, with the new year falling near the winter solstice in late January or early February. In this respect it is not so different from ours, despite being 4000 years older. A bigger difference is in the way the years are named. Rather than assigning a number based on the beginning of the calendar (In fact, there is considerable disagreement about which year this would be if numbered according to our system.), years in the Chinese calendar are named. There are several naming systems in use, the most popular being animal based. There are 12 animal names in the system, and they are repeated every 12 years. On February 14, we changed over from the Year of the Ox to the Tiger.

Each animal named has a unique significance, much like our own astrological signs. Your sign is based on the year in which you were born, rather than the month, and the animal associated with your birth year is said to determine your personal traits. The tiger, for example, is associated with bravery, competitiveness and unpredictability. People born in the year of the dog will embody the traits of loyalty, compatibility and kindness. And, as with our own zodiac, there are other factors considered which help to create differences among those born in the same animal year.

Named years lead to a different way of thinking about ones age. Instead of “how old are you?” the question becomes “In what year (animal) were you born?”. If, as in my case, the answer is “Tiger”, the questioner is left to assume that I am either 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 84, 96…well, you get the picture. Amazing how an extra 4000 years of practice has softened that particular piece of social awkwardness.

Chinese Animals
Animals of the Chinese calendar listed with their birth years.
Which animal are you?

New Year in China is the biggest holiday of the year. Like our Christmas, it has become the traditional time of coming together with family. Depending on the country or region, celebrations can last anywhere from 3 to 5 days. Among Chinese residents this period is marked by the worlds largest human migration, with families traveling often great distances to be together. Like Christmas, parades, family dinners, gift exchanges, song and dance are all part of the celebration.

So I plan to enjoy my year, and wish everyone reading a hearty “gung hay fat choy” (“Congratulations and be prosperous”). And if you plan to ask my age next time you see me, you know what my answer will be.

Bob Lewis
Contributing Writer

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