Central to understanding Chinese astrology is the well known conception of the Yin and Yang. These are dualities in opposition to each other, of course. The Yin is the female partner and the Yang is the male. You are doubtlessly familiar with the symbolic representation of the divided circle with a white half with a black hole within it and a black half with a white hole within it. This symbol is intended to convey the idea that the Yin contains within it a tiny seed of the Yang and vice versa. There is simple elegance in the fact that both sides are equally distributed, meaning that each is essential to providing balance and completion.
Also important in grasping the underpinning of the foundation of Chinese astrology is knowledge of the five elements. The five elements of vital significance to the Chinese zodiac are water, fire, wood, metal and the earth itself. The Chinese zodiac, as you may be familiar with, is dominated by animal symbols and each of those animals is presided over by one of the elements. These animals are actually divided among four of the five elements. For instance, there are water animals like the rat and the pig, wood animals like the tiger and dragon, and so on. The only element that doesn’t rule over an animal is earth, but it does contribute through having an impact on specific years.
Chinese astrologers originally created the central concept of the 60 year cycle. Half of these cycles are considered to belong to the Yin and the other half to the Yang. The true significance of these 60 year cycles is that they impact each individual year, endowing it with its own special brand of value and importance. In other words, you may have been born in the Year of the Dragon, but when all the individual aspects are brought into play you would actually be considered a yang water Dragon. This means that your personality and life will be markedly different from someone born in a yin wood Dragon year. By the time you calculate the variations involving the Chinese astrological division of the 12 months and the further 12 divisions of the time of the day in which you could be born, Chinese astrologers have no less than 8640 different and unique combinations with which to work to develop an astrological chart for any person.
Before (or after) you go to making fun of fundamentalist Christians who deny scientific evidence in their insistence that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, consider that ancient Chinese astrologers were convinced that the age of the planet was roughly 3600 years old. Taking this knowledge, they proceeded to divide the age of the Earth evenly into 300 different 60 year-long cycles. The number 60 was chosen because the Chinese believed that this age was the perfect length of time for the human lifespan. (Consider it a kind of Logan’s Run x 2.) In turn, each of these cycles of life are further subdivided according to the five elements to produce what are known as the Twelve Earthly Branches. Over time these twelve branches came to be symbolized by animals. The legend is that the particular animals were chosen by none of than Buddha himself. Whether that is true or not, it does appear the animals for the Chinese zodiac originated not in China itself, but as an import from Central Asia.
The really fun part is in watching a person raised on the western zodiac confront the animal that symbolizes the year in which they were born. Almost invariably, when one finds they were born in the Year of the Rat there is a visible expression of disgust. In fact, there is absolutely no inherent negative quality associated with the Rat. From the perspective of Chinese astrology the rat is much more closely aligned to Remy from Ratatouille than Elia Kazan from the communist witch hunt of the 1940’s and 50’s. To be born under the Year of the Rat is to be industrious and loyal, not to mention being a terrific mom or dad. Another animal in the Chinese zodiac that westerners often have trouble with is the Snake. Rather than being a snake like Elia Kazan, the Chinese astrologers chose the slithery serpent because of traits like wisdom and organizational skills. I don’t know much about snakes, but I feel you’ve pretty much got be good at problem-solving when you have no hands or feel.
Still, the animal of the year you were born is only half the story in Chinese astrology. Each animal is also allotted its own month and time of day, so therefore you might well have been born in the Year of the Tiger, during the month of the Goat at the time of day that belongs to the Dragon. That is why all if you and another person were both born in the Year of the Dog you might notice that you fit its descriptions related to loyalty more so than your friend. To judge the Chinese Zodiac strictly in terms of everybody in the same year acting exactly alike is to misunderstand the vital significance of month and time of birth. It is the introduction of these elements that contributes to the variations of personality among all millions born in the, for instance, Year of the Monkey. That is also why if you plan on visiting a trained Chinese astrologer you should discover the exact time of your birth.