Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

by Jamie Smedley, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

2020 is the Year of the Rat...

In the Chinese calendar, the beginning of every year falls between late January and early February, and is marked by an animal sign of the Chinese zodiac. Each year is given a different animal sign as a way of counting the years; the cycle is repeated every twelve years. The years are scheduled according to the lunar cycles of the moon as compared to the solar-based calendars of the West. Since 1911, the Chinese have adopted the solar calendar and use it alongside the lunar calendar for holidays. Many Chinese calendars have both solar and lunar dates printed on them.

Zodiac Origins

The animals used in the zodiac, and how they came to represent it, are a wonderful Chinese legend with many variations. The most common version being the legend of the Jade Emperor and how he wanted to hold a race across a river to give twelve animals the right to rule for a year. All animals were given a chance to swim, and the first twelve to reach the opposite bank would win the positions in which they arrived.

Cat and Rat were the worst swimmers of all the animals, so they designed a plan to ask if they could cross the river on the back of Bull. Bull, being a kind and gentle creature, agreed to carry them. As the group reached the center of the rushing river, the ambitious Rat pushed Cat off Bull's back and into the water to ensure his victory. Rat's betrayal is why Cat and Rat have evermore been sworn enemies and why, to this day, cats despise swimming in water.

As Bull reached the riverbank, Rat darted atop Bull's head and sprang to the ground to reach the shore first and became the first zodiac animal. Bull was content to be given the second year. The third animal to successfully cross the river was Tiger, who was known to be the most powerful of all the animals. Exhausted, Tiger explained that the heavy currents of the river, coupled with an entangled log, had pushed Tiger further downstream, delaying the animal's arrival.

After Tiger was proclaimed the third animal of the zodiac, the Jade Emperor heard a thumping sound just as Rabbit bounded into view. As the fourth animal, he explained his attempts at trying to cross the river by jumping from stone to stone. The stones eventually came to an end, leaving Rabbit stranded in the middle of the waters and, fearing he could lose the race, thought quickly and hopped onto a floating log to reach the shore.

The fifth animal to reach the shore was Dragon. Dragon was as strong as Tiger, and even though he could fly, Dragon didn't come in first. When the Jade Emperor asked why, Dragon said that it was because he took time to stop and help the people and creatures of the earth who were suffering famine by causing rain. Then, seeing little Rabbit stranded on a rock, Dragon guided the log that was entangling Tiger away to instead help Rabbit float across the river.

Dragon had just finished this tale when a thunderous splashing was heard and Horse reared towards the shore but the cunning Snake, having wrapped around the ankle of Horse, suddenly dropped onto the bank just ahead of Horse. This sudden appearance spooked the poor Horse backwards, giving Snake the sixth position, followed by Horse in seventh.

Next to arrive were Ram, Monkey and Rooster who skidded to a stop on the shore riding a tangled reed raft. They told the Jade Emperor how they formed an alliance to help each other cross the river beginning with Rooster who had flown around until a suitable raft was spotted and then took Monkey and Ram to where it was. Then Ram and Monkey cleared the weeds and they all glided upon it across the water to the shore. Delighted with their mutual efforts, the Jade Emperor gave Ram the eighth zodiac position, Monkey the ninth and Rooster the tenth.

Dog, known to be the best swimmer, was next to reach the shore and explained that upon seeing his dirt-smudged coat paired with the tempting clean river waters, he decided to stop and bathe, but Dog tarried for too long and almost didn't finish the race. Finally, Pig emerged squealing and sputtering from the waters as the last and twelfth zodiac animal. Pig's reason for a late arrival was being "so ravenous with the exertion of finding a good crossing spot that a meal was needed," so he sniffed out a bountiful feast of grubs, berries and roots, followed by a short nap.

The Five Chinese Elements

Unlike the ancient Greeks, who viewed the world being made of four elements (earth, water, air and fire), the Chinese worldview included five elements: earth, water, wood, fire and metal. Each element is deeply connected to a color: earth is yellow or brown, water is black or blue, wood is green, fire is red and metal is white. Each animal is affiliated with one of the five elements, adding complexity to this form of astrology.

Wood (Mu)

  • The color green
  • Sunrise or the east
  • Spring
  • The planet Jupiter
  • Wood people are considered to be exceptionally gifted, idealistic and long-term planners
  • Wood years: 1904, 1905, 1924, 1925, 1934, 1935, 1944, 1945, 1954, 1955, 1964, 1965, 1974, 1975, 1984, 1985, 1994, 1995, 2004, 2005, 2014, 2015, 2024, 2025
  • Tiger and Rabbit

Fire (Hou)

  • The color red
  • The south
  • Summer
  • The planet Mars
  • Fire people are considered to be courageous, passionate and good at research
  • Fire years: 1906, 1907, 1916, 1917, 1926, 1917, 1926, 1927, 1936, 1937, 1946, 1947, 1956, 1957, 1966, 1967, 1976, 1977, 1986, 1987, 1996, 1997, 2006, 2007, 2016, 2017, 2026, 2027
  • Snake and Horse

Earth (Tu)

  • The color yellow (or brown)
  • The center
  • The change of seasons
  • The planet Saturn
  • Earth people are considered to be kind, tolerant and honest leaders
  • Earth years: 1908, 1909, 1918, 1919, 1928, 1929, 1938, 1939, 1948, 1949, 1958, 1959, 1968, 1969, 1978, 1979, 1988, 1989, 2008, 2009, 2018, 2019, 2028, 2029
  • Bull (Ox), Dragon, Ram (Sheep/Goat) and Dog

Metal (Jin)

  • The color white
  • Sunset or the west
  • Autumn/fall
  • The planet Venus
  • Metal people are considered to be determined, persistent and work-loving managers
  • Metal years: 1900, 1901, 1910, 1911, 1920, 1921, 1930, 1931, 1940, 1941, 1950, 1951, 1960, 1961, 1970, 1971, 1980, 1981, 1990, 1991, 2000, 2001, 2010, 2011, 2020, 2021
  • Monkey and Rooster

Water (Shui)

  • The color black or blue
  • The north
  • Winter
  • The planet Mercury
  • Water people are considered to be sympathetic, perfectionistic coordinators and connection builders
  • Water years: 1902, 1903, 1912, 1913, 1922, 1923, 1932, 1933, 1942, 1943, 1952, 1953, 1962, 1963, 1972, 1973, 1982, 1983, 1992, 1993, 2002, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2022, 2023
  • Rat and Pig
In addition, the elements are appended to the zodiacal animal years to create a 60-year cycle of non-repeating names. For example, 1911 and 1971 are years of the White Metal Pig, 1935 and 1995 are years of the Green Wood Pig, 1923 and 1983 are Black (or Blue) Water Pig, 1947 and 2007 are Red Fire Pig--and, finally, 1959 and 2019 share the year name Yellow (or Brown) Earth Pig.

Which Zodiac Animal Are You?

Find your year of birth below and see which zodiac animal it represents. Also, discover the animal character traits and strengths that you share with those born in the same year, beginning between late January and early February.

Animal Year
Rat 1900 1912 1924 1936 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996 2008 2020
Bull (Ox) 1901 1913 1925 1937 1949 1961 1973 1985 1997 2009 2021
Tiger 1902 1914 1926 1938 1950 1962 1974 1986 1998 2010 2022
Rabbit 1903 1915 1927 1939 1951 1963 1975 1987 1999 2011 2023
Dragon 1904 1916 1928 1940 1952 1964 1976 1988 2000 2012 2024
Snake 1905 1917 1929 1941 1953 1965 1977 1989 2001 2013 2025
Horse 1906 1918 1930 1942 1954 1966 1978 1990 2002 2014 2026
Ram (Sheep/Goat) 1907 1919 1931 1943 1955 1967 1979 1991 2003 2015 2027
Monkey 1908 1920 1932 1944 1956 1968 1980 1992 2004 2016 2028
Rooster 1909 1921 1933 1945 1957 1969 1981 1993 2005 2017 2029
Dog 1910 1922 1934 1946 1958 1970 1982 1994 2006 2018 2030
Pig 1911 1923 1935 1947 1959 1971 1983 1995 2007 2019 2031

Read below to discover the commonly believed character traits and jewelry/gemstone preferences of each Chinese zodiac animal.


Years of the Rat Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Rats are sentimental and sensitive, intelligent and charming and very ambitious. Their quick optimism and cheerful resourcefulness make it easy to see why they are so successful in business ventures. Rats are thought to love to dig for hidden potential in projects, people and circumstances and they adore putting their cleverly creative ideas into motion. While Rats enjoy finding a good secret or treasure, they are well known for not being able to keep it a secret for long.

Rats love gemstone beads that are as energized as they are, which is why they are drawn to jewelry designs that incorporate garnet, emerald, sunstone and lemon quartz gemstone beads.

Shop for Rat's gemstone beads:
Bull (Ox)

Years of the Bull Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Bulls have a steady, honest, gentle and reliable personality that builds plans and ideas on firm ground. Patient, logical and hardworking, a successful Bull needs peace and quiet to work through ideas and labors best when given space. If pushed, Bulls can become frustrated, unyielding and unmovable. They work well with their hands and thrive on steadiness and situations that require patient strength of character.

Bulls tend to love earthy jewelry designs that focus on strength and simplicity with materials such as aquamarine, lapis lazuli, onyx, marble and sardonyx gemstone beads.

Shop for Bull's gemstone beads:

Years of the Tiger Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Tigers are natural-born leaders who love to travel. They tend to be determined, enthusiastic and optimistic with a strong sense of authority. Preferring to be established, Tigers will leave or ignore a situation if it does not easily conform to their ideals, and they can become unfriendly at best if they feel trapped. They do enjoy discovering the potential found in improbable circumstances and prefer roles where they can help guide others.

When it comes to jewelry, Tigers gravitate toward finer materials such as sapphires, rubies, tiger iron, tigereye and all colors of jade.

Shop for Tiger's gemstone beads:

Years of the Rabbit Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Charitable, welcoming and peaceful by nature, Rabbits thrive on routines and can become anxious if they have to step outside of the lines or make risky decisions. They thrive on details of the minutest kind and thoroughly enjoy creating a home of solace and beautiful tranquility. Cultivated and artistic, Rabbits are brilliant at remembering.

Rabbits are attracted to highly detailed jewelry designs that abound with cultured freshwater pearls, sapphires, faceted multicolored tourmaline and rainbow moonstone gemstone beads that flash and dance with lively colors.

Shop for Rabbit's gemstone beads:

Years of the Dragon Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

The charismatic, enthusiastic and self-confident personalities of Dragons help them excel at creating a good first impression. Dragons have good judgment and tend to take a keen interest in the world around them, often stepping in at the right moment to help those in need. Both decisive and dignified, Dragons take a wholehearted approach to life and they see themselves as protectors.

Dragons admire jewelry designs with beneficial properties that incorporate gemstones such as amethyst for wisdom, noble rubies, black jet for peace and abundance, turquoise for good communication and chrysoprase to banish greed and carelessness.

Shop for Dragon's gemstone beads:

Years of the Snake Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Preferring to always have control of their situation, Snakes are charming, captivating and often conservative. They frequently exhibit the alertness and perception of a cobra's mysterious gaze. Companionship, moral support and unconditional love are important to Snakes in all relationships. They are uncommonly patient with the ability to move on their desired target at precisely the right moment.

When it comes to jewelry, Snakes are charmed by sleek, sinuous jewelry designs featuring opal, serpentine, amazonite and prehnite gemstone beads.

Shop for Snake's gemstone beads:

Years of the Horse Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Horses reveal an independent, self-assured and highly motivated character. Intelligent, fashionable and articulate, they set out to achieve recognition for their talent and unique skills. They are devoted to their family, home and work but aren't afraid to cut loose and get a little crazy when the time calls for it. Even in the face of a crisis, Horses will push forward, using their tremendous inner strength to see things through.

Horses are delighted by free-styled jewelry designs featuring topaz, Crazy Horse™ stone, morganite and smoky quartz gemstone beads.

Shop for Horse's gemstone beads:
Ram (Sheep/Goat)

Years of the Ram Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Known to be elegant and patient individuals, Rams enjoy being moderately active and practice prudence in all aspects of their lives. Despite their appearance of vulnerability and routine worrying, they are able to tolerate intense pressure while remaining stable, often taking on insurmountable tasks and accomplishing them marvelously. Preferring to stay behind the scenes, steadfast Rams are excellent team players.

Cultivating an appreciation for the arts and nature, they are some of the most creatively inspired people and are sensitive to romantic jewelry designs that incorporate emerald, sapphire, malachite, crazy lace agate and Mexican green ''opal'' gemstone beads.

Shop for Ram's gemstone beads:

Years of the Monkey Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Fun-loving, spirited and genuinely happy, Monkeys have a generous and clever way of thinking outside-of-the-box. Their charm and humor, paired with their innate curiosity, make them excellent problem solvers and quick learners. Monkeys' emotions are plainly visible and they have but one weakness--food. Monkey has a discerning palate when it comes to gourmet nibbles.

Being cheerful and sanguine, Monkeys prefer contemporary jewelry designs that use peridot, tigereye, aqua terra jasper and Botswana agate gemstone beads.

Shop for Monkey's gemstone beads:

Years of the Rooster Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Roosters are confident, straightforward, observant and thrifty. Conscious of appearances, Roosters like to get noticed and will save in order to buy something a little extravagant. Roosters enjoy singing and music and can be very creative when they set their mind to it. They also have a powerful desire for perfection, and will take the necessary time to get a job done right. They have strength of persistence and often display strong personal power.

Roosters know what they want and tend to select rustic jewelry designs that rely on citrine, topaz, magnesite, fancy jasper and quartz crystal gemstone beads to convey their intelligent personality.

Shop for Rooster's gemstone beads:

Years of the Dog Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Dogs are sincere, loyal and faithful and will consistently defend justice and honorable duty. Long recognized to be attentive listeners, Dogs always seem to be ready for action. Also known for keeping commitments, Dogs will do anything to avoid betraying a confidence. Exuberant and playful, they offer devoted support to those who mean the most to them.

Such qualities make Dogs truly deserving of jewelry designs made of the finer quality gemstone beads such as diamonds, labradorite, larimar and ruby gemstone beads.

Shop for Dog's gemstone beads:

Years of the Pig Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac

Recognized as being big-hearted, chivalrous and diplomatic, Pig is always admired for a warm and giving personality that seems too good to be true. They strive to find the best in people and give plenty of room for freedom of expression. They are well-known for exhibiting fine manners and well-chosen words that exalt those around them. They enjoy simple and earthy pleasures with a tendency to overindulge.

The sweet and gentle nature of Pig admires classical jewelry designs made with ruby, moonstone, apatite, rose quartz and blue lace agate gemstone beads.

Shop for Pig's gemstone beads: Additional Resources ...

Customer Comments

We would like to share some of the customer comments we received in response to the article, "Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac," featured in a newsletter. Please keep in mind that the comments expressed below are those of our customers and do not reflect the views of Fire Mountain Gems and Beads.
"The Chinese New Year Zodiac, story, and associated Gems was excellent. Learning about a Gemstone one uses is a great tool: in gift giving, selling, etc. Thank you!"
- Shirley

"I found the article on the Chinese New Year and the story of the Zodiac quite interesting. Your newsletter always has interesting articles."
- Sharon

"Excellent article on the Chinese Zodiac. Well written and provides information for creating jewelry."
- Steve

"I really enjoyed the Chinese zodiac article. I fly to China and have several Chinese friends that will enjoy this article also. Thank you for sharing."
- JQ

"The Chinese zodiac article was so cool! I do not "believe" in the zodiac but enjoy its legend origin. Yours was the best article I have ever seen on it. So it's Tiger this year! Yea! I love cats and Tigers Eye gems. Your jewelry designs are beautiful. I'm inspired!"
- Bonny

"I loved your story on the Chinese New Year. I also like that you let us print these articles, I like to have them to look at later."
- Sheila

"Re: Chinese New Year and the Story of the Zodiac. We love celebrating Chinese New Year in our home with decorations and a Chinese dinner complete with fortune cookies. Daughter and grandchildren love sharing the experience. Discussion of the animals of the zodiac and their qualities always take place during and after dinner. I was having trouble finding up-to-date info when your email came. It is more complete than I have seen in a long time. I love the bracelet for the year of the Tiger. Thank you for keeping us informed."
- Betty Jane

"Chinese calendar, thank you for the info. You guys are the best, I love everything about Fire Mountain Gems especially the glass pearls, you guys have the best selection. Thank you, keep up the good work!"
- Maria

"I work with many Chinese people so really enjoyed the article on the Chinese zodiac. Thank you, hope to see more informative articles."
- Bonnie

"People are not born in the Year of the Tiger, until after Chinese New Year, usually in Feb/March. I was born in May, so I am a Tiger. My former husband was a rat--which might explain a lot! My new gr. grandson was born on 1/10/2010, and he weighed 10 pounds! So, because he was born before Chinese New Year, he was born in the year of the Ox. Just thought you'd like to know."
- Penny

"I enjoyed the Chinese New Year article. I hadn't heard that story before. I had heard the animals were called by Buddha. Still it was interesting and the links to the gemstones will be great. Thank you."
- Maxine

"Loved the Chinese new year story, looking for the charms."
- Irene

"I really enjoyed the article about the Chinese new year. It was fun and informative. I will use it when I am creating stones and in my displays."
- Sandra

"Loved the Chinese New Year article but wish you had sent it earlier so that it could have been used before the Chinese New Year celebration was over. Oh well I will save it for next year."
- Cathy

"It has been a pleasure reading this article on the Chinese Zodiac. I'll try to buy something with their precious stone for my classmates. An absolutely beautiful legend. How good to read nice things nowadays."
- Marina