Chinese Astrology

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The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka

Chinese astrology is based on a different system than astrology in the West. It is not the zodiac that forms the basis for calculation but a combination of number mysticism and the principle of polarity. Great emphasis is placed on the numbers five and twelve.

Two "ancestral lines" lead to astrological insight, the Ten Tribes of Heaven and the Twelve Branches of Earth. The Ten Tribes of Heaven stand for celestial space. They are derived from the five planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn or the five elements wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each planet is associated with one element: Jupiter with wood, Mars with fire, Saturn with earth, Venus with metal and Mercury with water. Chinese astrology doesn't consider the Sun and the Moon to be planets. In addition, each set of planet and element appears in both a masculine and feminine form, resulting in ten pairs. This principle is widely known outside of China as yin-yang, according to which a dynamic interchange between these two principles – exemplified by such pairings as day and night, warm and cold, light and darkness, activity and rest underlies all existence.

The twelve Earth branches embody the opposite and necessary addendum to the ten tribes of heaven. They represent terrestrial time, the cycle. The mystic number twelve is based on the 12 year orbit of Jupiter, the 12 month orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the division of one day into twelve double-hours. The Tribes of Heaven and the Twelve Earth Branches, i.e. the planetary energies, elements and the cycle of time are, when considered in isolation, of little relevance. The complementary interaction between them releases the potential energy within, as noted by Chinese expert Marcel Granet: "However, because space and time, Heaven and Earth can only be imagined on the basis of their continuing interdependence, the relationship between the two cycles is no less important than their polarity. Taken together these cycles cover all possible places and opportunities. They also make it possible to understand them in a way that recognises both their terrestrial dimension while recognising their sacred origins, or their sacred aspect while remaining aware of how they manifest in the earthly realm."[1]

The twelve animals embody twelve phases of the cyclical orbit and are also related to the principles of yin and yang. Six wild animals are equated with the yang principle and six domesticated animals with the yin principle. The names of the individual animals are:

  • Rat
  • Ox
  • Tiger
  • Rabbit
  • Dragon
  • Snake
  • Horse
  • Sheep
  • Monkey
  • Rooster
  • Dog
  • Pig

The Chinese zodiac is also occasionally compared to the Western one: the Rat is equated with Aries, the Ox with Taurus, the Horse with Gemini and so on. However, comparisons of this kind are fairly simplistic and don't do justice to two systems of thought that developed independently from each other.

Every year, month, day and double-hour begins with an element and sign of the zodiac. The numeration then follows the order as above, although each element occurs in both its masculine and feminine forms with each advancing sign of the zodiac, for example yang-wood-rat, yin-wood-ox, yang-fire-tiger, yin-fire-rabbit etc. And because this pattern applies not only to the year, but also the month, day and double-hour every person has eight separate characteristics – four elements and four signs – which help to define the individual's personal traits. Chinese astrology is therefore nowhere near as vague and superficial as some might believe from the practice of attributing one animal to each year.

The assessment of the twelve signs is of major importance. Some signs are considered to be very fortunate – for example the dragon or pig – whereas others such as the snake or dog have a particularly poor reputation.

In addition to the celestial stems and earthly branches there also exists a very old lunar astrological tradition. According to this tradition, the Moon traverses 28 stations which are associated with various signs of the zodiac. The count is repeated after every 12 stations. Two different calendars are consulted because the Moon's cycle is not in harmony with the 12 rhythm. This has proven to be rather impractical and has led to a decline in practice of astrology based on lunar cycles.

The Moon's Nodes are an important element in Chinese astrology.

In addition to the movement of the planets, ancient stargazers also considered particular astronomical events such as eclipses to be important, and astronomers worked closely with astrologers. For this reason ancient China had an old tradition of astronomical observation which only members of the emperor's court were allowed to practice. The emperor was then expected to translate their findings into political actions, as Confucius had demanded: "The patterns revealed in the heavens set an example for the rulers to follow."

Chinese astrology is very much orientated towards making predictions, and the sign which rules over any particular year is considered to be the dominant if not only factor. Popular astrology in China is concerned with making general predictions. But any serious astrological prediction always considers how the unique astrological qualities of any individual interact with the quality of time at any particular moment. Only then is any kind of nuanced interpretation possible. Other methods of making prediction, such as the I Ching oracle which is laid down in the "Book Of Change", are also used to complement any astrological prediction.

There is widespread acceptance of the idea that astrology can be used to make predictions, even among intellectuals, politicians, public officials or economists whose Western counterparts avoid (at least officially) any kind of contact with astrology. People turn to astrologers when deciding on when to marry, starting a new career or business or travelling. Politicians turn to astrologers for advice when making important decisions, and leading economic figures when investing or buying on the stock market.

The popular branches of astrology in the West known as Psychological Astrology, or Esoteric Astrology which aim to gain a deeper understanding of psychic or spiritual patterns and their development are virtually unheard of in China.

See also

The Chinese mythological white hare making the elixir of immortality on the Moon[2]



  • Sun Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker: The Chinese Sky During The Han: Constellating Stars and Society Brill, 1997. 244 pages. ISBN 9789004107373
Historical survey of the Chinese constellations two thousand years ago Review online (Gavin White, Skyscript 2009)

Notes and References

  1. Marcel Granet: La Pensée Chinoise (Chinese Thought), 1950
  2. Embroidered onto an eighteenth-century Imperial Chinese robe