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Chinese Astrology Background

The ancient Chinese astronomers called the five major planets by the names of the element they were associated with: Venus corresponds to Metal (gold); Jupiter to Wood; Mercury to Water; Mars to Fire; Saturn to Earth. According to Chinese Astrology, a person's destiny can be determined by the position of the major planets, along with the positions of the Sun, Moon and comets and the person's time of birth and Zodiac Sign.

A laborious system of computing one's fate and destiny based on one's birthday and birth hours (known as Zi Wei Dou Shu 紫微斗數 zǐwēidǒushù) is still used regularly in modern day Chinese astrology to divine one's fortune. The 28 Chinese constellations (宿 xìu) are quite different from the 88 Western constellations. For example, the Big Bear (Ursa Major) is known as 斗 dǒu; the belt of Orion is known as 參 shēn, or the "Happiness, Fortune, Longevity" trio of demigods. The seven northern constellations are referred to as xúanwǔ (玄武). Xuan Wu is also known as the spirit of the northern sky or the spirit of Water in Taoism belief.

In addition to astrological readings of the heavenly bodies, the stars in the sky form the basis of many fairy tales. For example, the Summer Triangle is the trio of the cowherd (Altair), the weaving maiden fairy (Vega), and the "tai bai" fairy (Deneb). The two forbidden lovers were separated by the silvery river (the Milky Way). Each year on the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese calendar, the birds form a bridge across the Milky Way. The cowherd carries their two sons (the two stars on each side of Altair) across the bridge to reunite with their fairy mother. The tai bai fairy acts as the chaperone of these two immortal lovers. See Qi Xi for more versions of this story.

The lunisolar calendar

The 60-year cycle consists of two separate cycles interacting with each other. The first is the cycle of ten heavenly stems, namely the Five Elements (in order Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water) in their Yin and Yang forms. The second is the cycle of the twelve Zodiac animal signs (生肖 shēngxiāo) or Earthly Branches . They are in order as follows: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep (ram or goat), monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

This combination of 5 elements X 12 animals creates the 60-year cycle, which always starts with Wood Rat and ends with Water Pig. Since the zodiac animal cycle of 12 is divisible by two, every zodiac sign can also only occur in either yin or yang: the dragon is always yang, the snake is always yin, etc. The current cycle began in the year 1984 (as shown in "Table of the lunar calendar and zodiac" below).

When trying to calculate the relevant year, an easy rule to follow is that years that end in an even number are yang, those that end with an odd number are yin. The cycle proceeds as follows:

If the year ends in 0 it is Yang Metal.
If the year ends in 1 it is Yin Metal.
If the year ends in 2 it is Yang Water.
If the year ends in 3 it is Yin Water.
If the year ends in 4 it is Yang Wood.
If the year ends in 5 it is Yin Wood.
If the year ends in 6 it is Yang Fire.
If the year ends in 7 it is Yin Fire.
If the year ends in 8 it is Yang Earth.
If the year ends in 9 it is Yin Earth.

However, since the (traditional) Chinese zodiac follows the (lunisolar) Chinese calendar, the switch over date is the Chinese New Year, not January 1 as in the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, a person who was born in January or early February has the sign of the previous year. For example, if a person was born in January 1970, his or her element would still be Yin Earth, not Yang Metal. Similarly, although 1990 was called the year of the horse, anyone born from January 1 to January 26, 1990 was in fact born in the Year of the Snake (the sign of the previous year), because the 1990 Year of the Horse did not begin until January 27, 1990. For this reason, many online sign calculators (and Chinese restaurant placemats) will give a person the wrong sign if he/she was born in January or early February.

The start of a new Zodiac is also celebrated on Chinese New Year along with many other customs.

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