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

 2024 is the Year of the Dragon

Traditionally the Chinese New Year holidays start on New Year's Eve
(The actual Lunar New Year's Day in 2024 is Feb. 10.)

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 they are used in. This is partially  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 other countries using the Chinese zodiac.  See explanations below.

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! The fact that it is also called "Peasant Calendar" is explaining its relation to agriculture. (Even in the west some peasants observe moon phases for their planting.)

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 another 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 (used for working the fields, pulling carts, etc.) 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. The Chinese character for these is the same. 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, to specifically describe a "bull" in Chinese the characters meaning "male" would be required before "cow" or "bovine" would be required. However, this would require two character words, which are 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?

This is the first of the Chinese zodiac signs. It poses a minor problem when translated, due to multiple meanings of the character. Generally it is translated as the Year of the Rat. The Chinese language may not necessarily be specific when they use the word, which in urban areas more often than not is the rat, while it also is translated as "mouse" in some areas or countries (Vietnam, etc.).

year of the ox

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

Male and female animals are called the same in Chinese, in general.
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 before the "cow".
In the southern parts of China and SE Asia 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' (e.g. water cow). In the north it may just be an 'ordinary' ox, or more likely a cow.

Usually these zodiac names have different meanings respective to the geographic location, even in southern China. 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. They do or did not usually keep milk cows. Most peasants would have owned one, sometimes maybe two of them for working the fields and pulling the cart. And yes, these may be cows rather than oxen. 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?

The above three meanings are all used in the zodiac, depending on translation or area. The character reads "Yang" in mandarin (standard Chinese) and is another ambiguous character. The character used can mean both a sheep or a goat, in Chinese.
To be more specific, the Chinese language needs to add 'wool' for a sheep or 'mountain' for a goat in front of the 'Yang' character, to express the meaning which is two different words in other languages.

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 other differences, as I know now!  No doubt many readers are not clear eiter about their difference, as we often use the terms interchangeably in some western languages.
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. So it could as well mean 'chicken' instead of 'rooster'.

year of the pig

Year of the Pig or Year of the Boar?

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

The original domestic Chinese pigs have often have long  hair and are black. See why this might have become the "Year of the Boar" in some translations?

In fact, western languages usually have specific names for most of above animals, while the Chinese language does not/ This is probably the main cause for the different translations of the 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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