Chinese Zodiac Signs

Why Chinese zodiac signs are different depending on the region...

Read below why some Zodiac Signs have different names.

Chinese Zodiac Signs in Different Cultures


The above characters represent a complete cycle of the zodiac calendar. A translation of of the characters is given in English below the characters.

Another set of characters is used when the Chinese zodiac signs are used to show the cyclical year.

See Chinese Zodiac Calendar

 February 8th 2016 is the Lunar New Year's Day (Year of the Monkey)

Traditionally the holidays start with New Year's Eve (the 7th this year).

Regional and Translation Differences

The Chinese zodiac is made up of eleven real animals and the mythical dragon. With some Chinese zodiac signs different animal names are used in non-Chinese languages, according to the language and region it is used in. This is a based on a different way of animal naming in the Chinese language; it is also related to the realities of Chinese culture and daily life, and those in of the other countries using the Chinese zodiac. 

First we need to understand that traditionally the use of the zodiac calendar is not limited to China. Several other Asian countries like Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, etc. use similar calendars. The zodiac is integrated into a 60 year cyclical calendar. In fact, it is a lunisolar calendar deeply embedded in Chinese traditions - but astrology is not its main purpose!

In western and other Asian languages several of the zodiac signs are given animal names that deviate from the original Chinese meaning. Difficulty of translating the Chinese meaning exactly into other languages is the main reason, no doubt, but insufficient knowledge of the language and the actual living environment in China may be an additional cause for these translations.

Animal names in Chinese culture

For example, to someone living in the southern regions of Asia, where it is subtropical, it is more likely to associate a "cow" to a water buffalo than someone living in the north, where there are no buffaloes. And, they are less likely to think of a sheep than a goat as zodiac animal. This may sound odd to the western reader, but more of this is explained below.

The way some Chinese zodiac signs are translated often indicates insufficient knowledge of the Chinese language and/or the actualities of Chinese life. The Chinese language has some peculiarities, making it difficult to know exactly which animal is meant by certain Chinese terms or characters.  The main reason for the ambiguity of zodiac animal names used in different regions comes from the fact that generally only one single Chinese character is used to describe animals, that were already commonly known in ancient times.

Currently the Chinese language frequently requires two characters to describe an animal accurately; that was not always so, however. The origin of the confusion lies in the fact that the Chinese language used only a single character to describe  animals, in the distant past. The characters of the zodiac signs remained the same through the ages, in written Chinese, while the spoken language changed.

As a result, even today's Chinese language usually does not make a difference between, among other, female and male animals in many cases; some animals for which other Asian or European languages have separate names are still called the same. Confusing? ...well, it is!

Same names used for male and female animals:
(in the Chinese language)

A character meaning "male" or "female" has to be added to an animal name to clarify which it is. For example, in Chinese to specifically describe a "bull" the characters meaning "male cow" or "male bovine" would be required. However, this requires a two character word, which is not used in the case of Chinese zodiac signs.
In general, the Chinese language does not use gender specific animal names like bull and cow, ram and ewe, etc. in normal speech. It just uses a common term.

Regional Differences of Zodiac Sign Names

Due to peculiarities of the Chinese language, and also due to geographical and cultural circumstances, the names of the following zodiac animals can be interpreted or translated in different ways.

The following shows variations of zodiac animal names frequently encountered in western languages.

year of the rat

Year of the Rat or Year of the Mouse?

Another Chinese zodiac sign posing problems is the Year of the Rat. Here again, Chinese people may not necessarily be specific when they use the word "Laoshu", which in an urban areas more often than not is the rat, while it also can be used for mice or similar members of that animal family.

year of the ox

Year of the Ox, Year of the Cow or of the Buffalo?

As explained above, male and female animals are called the same.
The single character for this zodiac year could mean a cow, bull or ox. It can also be used for other bovines, including the water buffalo. Actually, for a Yak the character for "hair, haired" would be added.
In the southern parts of where the water buffalo is more common than other bovines, the 'buffalo' year is more likely in the people's mind for this zodiac sign. In Chinese the character for "water" would just be added to "cow", to mean 'water buffalo'. In the north it may just be an 'ordinary' ox, or more likely a cow.

Usually these zodiac names have a different meaning also in view to geographic location. It relates to the animals that the people predominantly use or see, as in the case of the cow or water buffalo used for tilling the fields or pulling carts. Most peasants will  own one, sometimes maybe two of them. The Chinese did not keep bovines for milk, but for work. And yes, these may be cows. I have personally seen a cow pulling the plough while a calf was walking beside its working mother...

year of the sheep

Year of the Sheep or Year of the Goat or Year of the Ram?

This zodiac sign (read: Yang) is another one using an ambiguous character. The character used means basically either or both, a sheep or a goat, in Chinese. To be more specific, the Chinese language needs to add 'wool' or 'mountain' before the character, resulting in a combination with the original character that then means "sheep" or "goat", respectively. But normally this is omitted.

Some translations of this zodiac sign use "Year of the Ram", which too is both correct and ambiguous at the same time, for the reason explained earlier; female and male animals are called the same.
Please be aware that except in the wide open and sparsely settled terrains of northern and western China, where they may be kept nomads, sheep do not commonly occur. Goats may be more often encountered as livestock on Chinese farmland.
So is it a Goat or Sheep, or is it a Ram?

year of the hare

Year of the Hare or Year of the Rabbit?

Do you know the difference between a 'Hare' and a 'Rabbit'? I confess I didn't know the difference for sure before writing this! I always thought hares were the wild ones, while rabbits were domestic hares. There are much more differences, as I know now!  No doubt many readers are not clear about their difference, either, as we often use the terms interchangeably .
The Chinese language also makes no difference between a Hare and Rabbit.

year of the rooster

Year of the Rooster or Year of the Chicken?

Here too Year of the 'Rooster' is a western translation for this Chinese zodiac sign. The Chinese character used for this animal does not clarify if it is a male or female, but western languages do. See where the differences come from?

year of the pig

Year of the Pig or Year of the Boar?

The Chinese character for this animal means pig.
In Japanese this character means a wild boar.

According to our experience many of the original Chinese domestic pigs have long black hair. See why this might have become the "Year of the Boar" in some translations?

In fact, western languages have specific names for several of the above animals while the Chinese language does not, is the main cause for the inaccurate translations of these Chinese zodiac signs.

The actual meaning attributed to these characters in the mind of Chinese people is certainly another factor contributing to the confusion.
For example, in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, where the lunar calendar is also observed, it is more likely that in relation with the Chinese zodiac signs a buffalo comes to mind with the local people, as water buffaloes are more common in those areas.

Chinese Calendar (Lunar Calendar)

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