Another Chinese Spring Festival is upon us, bringing an end to the Year of the Rooster and ushering in Year of the Dog. Since many laowai don’t know too much about this kind of stuff, let’s take a quick peek into the hows and whys of the Chinese Zodiac.


Let’s start with the basics: the Chinese zodiac is a repeating 12-year cycle, and each year has its own animal; each cycle begins with a Year of the Rat and ends with a Year of the Pig. There’s a Chinese folktale involving Emperor Yu Huang that explains the order, in which he asks the animals to race across a river to determine their order. It’s a quick story and, in its own traditional way, pretty wild. It involves some off-the-wall stuff like the Rat betraying his best friend, the Cat, by drowning him in the river (which is why, according to folklore, cats and rats are now mortal enemies, and also why we don’t have a Year of the Cat); the Dragon knows he’s like a thousand times more badass than the other animals and screws around saving villages and literally making it rain, like some kind of baller, scaly Superman before just kind of rolling in like a boss for 5th place; and, long story short, at the end of it the Pig just chows down and goes into a food coma instead of racing at all.

Each animal in the Chinese zodiac has a set of associated character traits and compatibility rankings with other animals, similar to concepts found in the Western zodiac. However, to further complicate things, each 12-year cycle is associated with one of five elements, known in Chinese as the “wuxing” (五行): wood, fire, earth, metal and water. That’s sixty years of wood rats and metal sheep, and would take forever to list out all the nuances and combinations, so let’s skip ahead a bit to talk about what all this means for Dogs.


In the story of the river race, the Dog came in eleventh. That has a lot to do with the Dog screwing around and playing in the water instead of taking the race seriously, and when he showed up to the finish line he claimed he was busy bathing himself.

As is the case with a lot of astrology, the exact traits of the Dog can vary depending on who you ask. However, most sources agree that Dogs are valiant, loyal, responsible and clever, while on the other side of the coin they might be a bit oversensitive, conservative and stubborn. In romance, they are supposedly a “perfect” match with the Rabbit, as their similar traits complement each other. Dragons, Sheep and Roosters are said to be very poor matches for the Dog, as their inability to share their true feelings (or communicate well in general) will be a consistent source of tension in the relationship.

2018 is the Year of the Earth Dog. What the Earth element adds to the mix is trustworthiness, along with a strong dash of intelligence, objectivity and a penchant for planning.

If you’re a Dog of any element, this year is what’s known in Chinese as your “benmingnian” (本命年), but you can call it your “circle year”. Unfortunately, a “circle year” is bad for every animal in the zodiac. In those years, your animal is “offending” a deity called Tai Sui, so you may be affected by his curses. In an attempt to ward off this bad luck and misfortune, it’s a fairly common practice for people in their circle year to wear some article of red clothing, whether that’s a red bracelet, red socks or, sometimes, red underwear. It’s also recommended that persons in their circle year not get married, because that’s also bad luck.


So, we’ve talked about Dogs, curses and the world’s most insane river race, and all of it begs the question: how much does this stuff play into modern Chinese culture?

The answer is as you might expect. Of course, the Chinese calendar is an immense part of not only Chinese culture, but also in East Asia in general. The aspects of the Chinese zodiac that may be considered more superstitious in nature are more strictly followed by more traditional people, while younger or more modern generations adhere much less closely to these ideas. For example, a couple of years ago during the Year of the Sheep, stories were floating around the Internet of parents pressuring their married children not to have children of their own, or in some cases to induce birth while it was still the more auspicious Year of the Horse. Most people, it should be said, are not quite that serious about it.

The Year of the Dog has nothing so dramatic up its sleeve, preferring just to screw around and play but still making sure to cross the finish line before the slovenly pig, as in the legend. But still, if it’s your circle year, maybe think about getting some red stuff in your life.

Are you doing anything special during the Year of the Dog?
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