Chinese New Year is upon us again, and red is set to become the colour of choice in most Chinese homes and restaurants. The supply chain around the world slows down during this time of year due to the Chinese rushing home after a long work year. Some travel thousands of kilometres to spend a few solid weeks with loved ones. Time stops for everyone in China, and it’s a period of festivities, home-cooked meals, reunions and quality meeting of minds with the family.
Each year, Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, falls on a different day in January or February depending on the position of the moon. The Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig make up the animals in the Chinese Zodiac, which runs on a 12-year cycle. Every Spring Festival, one of the 12 animals is celebrated for that year, paired with one of the five elements, water, wood, fire, earth or metal.
The 2022 Chinese year starts on January 30 and is calculated to be the year of the Water Tiger.
Accordingly, we’ll see a lot of tigers in Chinese art, fashion and pop culture. The Tiger, known as the king of beasts in China, represents great strength, fearlessness, bravery and forcefulness. Tigers can bring about both good and evil. To conquer a tiger is to conquer the darker side of nature and, back in the day, was as rare as sightings of the tiger itself.
If you were born in 2022, 2010, 1986, 1974, 1962 and every 12 years previous, you are a Tiger.
In Chinese culture, from ancient times to the present day, babies would often be seen wearing tiger costumes or boots in a tiger skin pattern to build their strength and protect their spirit. In the country’s north-eastern parts, giving a tiger pillow to a child was customary, usually hand-stitched by the women of the family to ward off the evil eye.
To date, there’s a sizeable industry in China and Taiwan dedicated to fortune telling and matchmaking based on zodiac signs. In ancient times, marriages were set up for the prosperity of the family. It’s believed that people of different age groups are beneficial to each other and that marrying someone a few years younger or older can yield favourable results depending on the needs of the family.
A woman who marries an older man is thought to find wise direction, a steady income and perhaps an established status and, in return, she has more time to bear children and create a larger family. Sometimes a woman marries a younger man, as she herself is already established and can enjoy the liveliness of his energy and take on a mentorship role for his life. As one famous proverb goes: “The man who marries a woman three years older will find himself holding golden bricks for life.”
Matchmakers continue to consult the zodiac to calculate the success rate of two families. They often divide the matches into five categories: perfect matches, complementary matches, acceptable matches, intimate friends and unfavourable matches. A common belief is that a Rat’s perfect match is the Ox, as the willing Ox is always able to carry the Rat across tumultuous terrain.
This in turn goes back to the origin story of how all the animals came to be; they were said to be invited by the mystical Jade Emperor to participate in a race to secure a place in the 12-year moon cycle. In the end, the Rat crossed the river on the back of the Ox and jumped off at the last minute making it the first sign of the zodiac, while the ox followed. From then on, the rat-ox pairing is written down as beneficial, be it in friendship or marriage.
Other favourable matches include: the talented Snake and the sociable Rooster as one likes to lead while the other likes to follow; the steady Horse and the practical Goat; the brave Monkey and the gracious Rabbit; and the sincere Boar and the loyal Dog. The ambitious Tiger and the popular Dragon, meanwhile, are said to be a pair matched in heaven, as they often have similar goals in life, are both grandiose, and have a great understanding for one another.
There is countless literature on the zodiac signs, what they mean and how to navigate one’s life using them. China’s agricultural roots are intertwined with the appreciation of nature, and the superstitions and philosophies of the spirit animals has become ingrained in the culture.
Older generations were far more serious about it, and they may ask someone’s age by what animal year they were born in without ever asking the person’s actual age. In modern times, some take it quite seriously, to the point where they make stock decisions and business moves using their foretold fortunes. Others may see it much like the monthly western horoscopes – as fun and speculative, but not too life-altering.
Hopefully, though, given the Year of the Tiger and its element Water are is upon us – with water said to bring prosperity and flow – if we are lucky, it may seep into this coming year.
Catiah Li is a multimedia artist, Eastern philosophy writer and illustrator, and author of the 'Hello, Wang Yang Ming' books