Aaron Hwang

By Aaron Hwang

mbg Contributor

Aaron Hwang is the author of The Chinese Zodiac: And Other Paths to Luck, Riches, & Prosperity and a graduate of Yale and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Image by Wizemark / Stocksy

January 25, 2023

If you’ve ever heard someone describe themselves as being “born in the Year of the Pig” or “the Year of the Fire Ox,” you may have wondered what these animals and elements are all about.

The system of Chinese astrology has been around for over 2,000 years, but it’s never too late to learn more about your own Chinese zodiac sign. Here’s an introduction to Chinese astrology, plus a breakdown of all 12 zodiac signs.


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What is Chinese astrology?

The roots of the Chinese zodiac go back as far as written history. Oracle bones describe ancient calendar cycles, and animals have been used as symbols of the human spirit as long as there has been imagination. But the combination of the two, and the subsequent system for divining a person’s character and destiny, came into focus around 200 B.C. in the Han dynasty.

The five elements and 12 animals (for a complete cycle of 60 combinations) was designed to map the natural cycle of seasons, days, and stars that the ancients observed moving all around them. Ever since, this cycle has been used to chart not only the year but the month, day, and hour—like four hands on one prodigiously ancient clock.

And just as a person might look at the season and hour and make an informed prediction of the weather (winter cold, night dark) so it was understood that by knowing the animals and elements presiding over a person’s birth year, month, day, and hour, that person’s character and destiny could also be predicted.

The 12 Chinese Zodiac signs + how to find yours.

When most people talk about their Chinese zodiac sign, they’re referring to the sign of their birth year. While this is not the only sign used in Chinese astrology, it is by far the easiest to find and has made it the most well known by far.

For a more in-depth look at your personal chart, the easiest thing to do is consult a Hsia Calendar or Bazi Calculator, which can both be found online—but for right now, let’s unpack the basics of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs.


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  • Years: 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020
  • Month: 12/7 to 1/5
  • Hour: 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
  • Associations: Problem-solving, lateral thinking, attention to detail
  • Hidden element: Yang Water
  • Allied with: Dragon, Monkey, Ox

Although each animal will come in all five elements over the years, each animal also has a hidden element that most matches their character. The Rat’s hidden element is Yang Water, and Rats embody this flexible and penetrating quality. Rats solve problems, not through force but through cleverness and finding the path of least resistance. If there’s a way through, the Rat can find it. They are also quick to spot disaster and reluctant to place too many eggs in one basket.

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  • Years: 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021
  • Month: 1/6 to 2/3
  • Hour: 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.
  • Associations: Constancy, strength, tradition
  • Hidden element: Yin Earth
  • Allied with: Rooster, Snake, Rat

Placid and stable, the Ox’s hidden element is Yin Earth. Associated with the time of year when winter ends and the ground must be broken for harvest, the Ox is hardworking and steadfast as the Earth itself. They have a particular way of doing things and dislike change. The Ox’s constancy gives them incredible strength and the staying power to push work forward, day after day. Little can frighten or intimidate them, but when roused to anger, they are equally difficult to placate.


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  • Years: 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022
  • Month: 2/4 to 3/5
  • Hour: 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.
  • Associations: Rebellion, impulse, new beginnings
  • Hidden element: Yang Wood
  • Allied with: Dog, Horse, Pig

The month of the Tiger marks the beginning of spring, and in ancient China, the New Year. Throwing off the yoke of winter and the Ox, the Tiger’s hidden element is the element of new beginnings: Yang Wood. The audacity of spring, of life, to burst forth after a long winter is the Tiger’s domain.

Capable of both stillness and sudden bursts of action, the Tiger is a rebel. They abhor stagnation and pursue constant improvement—both in themselves and the world around them.


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  • Years: 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023
  • Month: 3/6 to 4/4
  • Hour: 5 a.m. to 7 a.m.
  • Associations: Sensitivity, art, potential
  • Hidden element: Yin Wood
  • Allied with: Pig, Goat, Dog

As spring blossoms and dawn breaks, the universe’s energy passes to the Rabbit. Associated with Yin Wood, the Rabbit is the calm after the storm—the tender, fragile shoots after the slate is wiped clean. Rabbits are sensitive and intuitive. They are receptive, with a keen eye for art and beauty.

Associated with the moon and psychic activity, their keen senses can also make them fragile. They may see too much, hear too much, and can become overwhelmed—but when properly nurtured, they hold great potential, their full strength bursting into life.


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  • Years: 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012
  • Month: 4/5 to 5/5
  • Hour: 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.
  • Associations: Confidence, limitlessness, yang
  • Hidden element: Yang Earth
  • Allied with: Rat, Monkey, Rooster

More than any other animal, the Dragon represents the concept of Yang. (People sometimes divide Yang and Yin into dichotomies even though they are simply the two sides of one coin called change.) That said, many societies tend to prioritize Yang qualities for better or worse.

The Dragon is all about being assertive, active, and a confident leader. These people exhibit expressive, outward force, and the desire and ability to change the world around them. Beholden to grand ideas and strong personalities, Dragons are capable of great things—but swept up in their own grandeur, they sometimes struggle to understand or even imagine those who don’t agree with them.


  • Years: 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013
  • Month: 5/6 to 6/5
  • Hour: 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
  • Associations: Mystery, adaptability, emptiness, Yin
  • Hidden element: Yin Fire
  • Allied with: Ox, Rooster, Monkey

Yang is always becoming Yin and vice versa—in the Zodiac, in the universe, and in us. In this way, the Dragon gives way to the Snake. While the Dragon’s power is overt, the Snake’s is subtle. Their hidden element of Yin Fire might be compared to the “inner fire”—the warmth of life and that mysterious energy that separates a live body from a dead one.

Making keen scholars, therapists, healers, and mystics, Snakes represent the ineffable. They defy definition. Snakes know identity resides in something internal and unknowable. For this reason, they have no trouble shifting from one role to another, shedding skins, and being reborn. They have a keen eye and see easily to the bottom of things—even to the complex reality of bottomlessness.


  • Years: 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014
  • Month: 6/6 to 7/6
  • Hour: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Associations: Action, movement, competition
  • Hidden element: Yang Fire
  • Allied with: Tiger, Dog, Goat

Associated with high noon and the bloom of summer, the Horse’s hidden element is Yang Fire. A creature of action, the Horse is explosive, decisive, and passionate. Associated with war in ancient times, the Horse brought armies swift and conclusive power.

Horse signs operate best when overthinking takes a back seat to the body and they can enter a state of flow. They like to keep busy and are activity-oriented. Like the Ox, the Horse is known for strength—but while the Ox is a constant flow of energy, the Horse is a brief but brilliant flame.


  • Years: 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015
  • Month: 7/7 to 8/7
  • Hour: 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Associations: Nurture, community, art, selflessness
  • Hidden element: Yin Earth
  • Allied with: Rabbit, Pig, Horse

The Goat shares its hidden element with the Ox. However, while the Ox embodies the indomitable stability of Yin Earth, the Goat embodies the land’s capacity to give, nurture, and unite. The sign of the Goat is inherently other-oriented, a builder and protector of community. To them, the other is an extension of the self, and thus they will risk their own well-being for the good of the herd. Sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others, Goats can sometimes become susceptible to the will of the crowd.


  • Years: 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016
  • Month: 8/8 to 9/7
  • Hour: 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Associations: Intellect, challenge, play, desire
  • Hidden element: Yang Metal
  • Allied with: Rat, Dragon, Snake

The Monkey’s hidden element is Yang Metal. This reflects Monkey’s keen mind, which is eager to solve and cut problems into neat solutions. The Monkey blurs the lines between work and play, logic and desire. The Monkey remind us that problem-solving is one of our most basic desires—that games are just work we do for fun. The Monkey can make anything a game, but unchecked, this can lead them to dream up imaginary problems or make mischief just for the challenge of it.


  • Years: 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017
  • Month: 9/8 to 10/7
  • Hour: 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Associations: Control, skill, analysis, influence
  • Hidden element: Yin Metal
  • Allied with: Ox, Snake, Dragon

The Rooster stands in for all birds in the Zodiac—the crane, the owl, the crow, the phoenix. As such, it is also associated with the burning sun, standing in opposition to the lunar Rabbit, and in marriage to the Imperial Dragon as the mythic bird of five colors, the Fenghuang.

Yin Metal is associated with the fine skill of intricate metal craft. And so the Rooster is known for a deft hand and being skillful, controlling, and detail-oriented. Rulers of the roost, they pay meticulous attention to style and manner and often aspire to comport themselves as flawlessly as possible. They are quick to notice defects in others and in themselves and are unafraid to point them out. They are keen leaders and strong protectors but struggle with perfectionism and self-criticism.


  • Years: 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018
  • Month: 10/8 to 11/6
  • Hour: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Associations: Loyalty, boundaries, judgment
  • Hidden element: Yang Earth
  • Allied with: Tiger, Horse, Rabbit

The Dog shares its hidden element with the Dragon. However, while the Dragon embodies the will of Yang to transcend Earth, the Dog focuses more on the union of the two. Yang Earth in the Dog is about boundaries, protection, and loyalty. If the Horse represents offense, the Dog represents defense.

Mapmakers and sentries, Dogs like to serve a higher calling. Deeply loyal to whatever tribe and purpose they call their own, they also tend to be suspicious of strangers, quick to judgment, and eager to protect their territory.


  • Years: 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019
  • Month: 11/7 to 12/6
  • Hour: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
  • Associations: Home, honesty, comfort, being in the moment
  • Hidden element: Yin Water
  • Allied with: Rabbit, Goat, Tiger

The last member of the Zodiac, and represented by Yin Water, the Pig is also associated with endings. They do not cling to the past, and this allows them to enjoy the moment. Pig signs often seem lucky because they are skilled at finding what is lucky about whatever situation they are in.

They are a symbol of the home and enjoying simple pleasures. Because they do not cling to too many preconceptions, the Pig has no trouble with honesty—to themselves or other people. They can also be overly trusting and slow to plan for the future.

 How to find your zodiac elements.

There are five elements in Chinese astrology. Unlike the scientific elements, these do not represent types of matter but rather figurative “phases” through which all things pass. In this manner, they form a complete and unending cycle, where each element gives birth to the next. Their order is Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.

In traditional practice, the Twelve Animals are referred to as the Twelve Earthly Branches, while the Five Elements are referred to as the Ten Heavenly Stems (counting the five elements in both Yin and Yang forms). By uniting the two, we achieve unity between heaven and Earth, and every year, month, day, and hour has both an official animal and an official element.

The five elements are as follows:


  • Attributes: Creativity, openness, growth
  • Symbols: Spring, the color green, and the eastern direction

Wood is the element of beginnings and represents the fertile emptiness in which new ideas take hold. In a Yin state, it is soft and flexible. In a Yang state, it is probing and growing. Wood people are defined by open minds and open hearts, as well as vast potential for growth. Wood is also associated with creativity, art, femininity, and youth. 

Wood is nourished by Water, and gives birth to Fire. It pierces Earth and is hemmed by Metal.


  • Attributes: Passion, energy, optimism
  • Symbols: Summer, the color red, and the southern direction

Fire is the element of desire and the will to create that follows the blank slate of Wood. In a Yin state, it is warm, hopeful, and charismatic. In a Yang state, it is energetic, effusive, and idealistic. Fire people are defined by a will to change the world and a passion for whatever it is they do. Fire is also associated with intellect, energy, and action.

Fire is fed by Wood’s blank slate and creates ashen Earth. It melts Metal’s rigidity and is quelled by Water.


  • Attributes: Reliability, practicality, endurance
  • Symbols: The transition between seasons and the harvest time, the color yellow, and the center of the compass rose

Earth is the element of reality, or what Fire’s impulse brings into being. In a Yin state, it is nurturing and safe, while in a Yang state it is industrious and stable. Earth people are builders, good at amassing and defending sturdy lives full of practical necessities. Earth is also associated with balance, buildings, tradition, and patience. If an element can be said to be the “center” of the cycle, it would be Earth.

Earth is fed by Fire and gives birth to Metal. It absorbs Water and is overturned by Wood’s possibilities.


  • Attributes: Forceful, decisive, organized
  • Symbols: Autumn, the color white, and the western direction

Metal is the element of concepts, which form around the physical stuff of Earth. A chair is Earth, but the idea of a chair, the ability to label it as such, is Metal.

In a Yin state, Metal is refined and witty. In a Yang state, it is sharp and unbending. Metal people are problem-solvers and good at organizing the world around them in a way they understand. Metal is also associated with accuracy, rigidity, and systems of evaluation like commerce, wealth, and academics.

Metal forms around Earth and collects Water. Metal’s sharp edges control Wood, but they soften and melt under Fire’s passion.


  • Attributes: Flexible, spiritual, sagacious
  • Symbols: Winter, the color black, and the northern direction

Water is the element of dissolution, as all concepts, labels, and materials eventually break down. In a Yin state, Water is pensive and emotional. In a Yang state, it is penetrating and dynamic. Water people are good at breaking things down into simple truths—or the reality that there is no single truth. They are capable of letting go and interested in what lurks beyond and beneath. Water is also associated with dreams, death, old age, and the subconscious.

Water collects in the cracks of Metal, and it cleans the slate for Wood. Water cools Fire’s passion, and is absorbed by dependable Earth.

How can I use this information?

The zodiac is shaped to help even the newest practitioner look inward, find themselves, and cultivate balance. These animals are a mirror. They do not tell us who we are but help us better ask the question. What are our strengths? What are our challenges? How are we different or the same from what we see in the mirror? Some questions are always worth pursuing.

Furthermore, both the 12 animals and the five elements describe cycles of the universe. Once you know the elements, you can see them in the people and systems around you. There is Wood element in a clean room, Metal in a list of pros and cons, Water in the act of forgiveness. When you learn this, you can also learn how to balance them. Any element in excess can be dangerous—any element too scarce can be fostered.

If you feel stuck in your ways (a symptom of excessive Earth), you may be looking for something new (an influx of Wood) to freshen things up. If you need help with a difficult concept (Metal), it may help to get your hands dirty and see it in action in the real world (Earth).

When followed to the end, Chinese astrology becomes not just a system for predicting one’s prospects but a philosophy on how one can balance their life.

Advanced astrologers will use the complete chart animals and elements from a person’s year, month, day, and hour to give in-depth year-by-year forecasts about the person’s destiny, wealth, relationship status, and more. If you are interested in learning more about this, you might look into “Bazi astrology.”


What is the most rare Chinese zodiac element?

No element is more rare than any other! It would be like asking “what is the most rare day of the week?” They are a cycle, each part coming and going in equal turn.

Which Chinese zodiac sign is the luckiest?

Historically, some people have hoped for births under a “luckier” sign. Some studies show birth rates rise in the year of the Dragon, as people hope to secure a bright destiny for their child. But the reality is, whatever animal you think is lucky reveals more about you or the society you live in than it does about the animal.

The takeaway.

Having a basic knowledge of the animals and elements in the Chinese zodiac can better equip you to understand yourself, look inward, and pursue balance in your life.