Chinese New Year
Decorations welcome the year of the "horned animal" for the upcoming Lunar New Year in BeijingGetty

Chinese New Year is fast-approaching, bringing colourful parades, lanterns and festivities.

The first day of the Chinese calendar, which this year lands on 19 February, will welcome the year of the goat – part of an ancient tradition in which the Chinese zodiac, Shēngxiào, attaches animal signs to each lunar year in a cycle of 12 years.

It reflects a similar concept in western astrology and means "circle of animals" – and remains popular in Asian communities around the world.

But as we bring the year of the horse to an end, where did the animals of the Chinese zodiac come from and what do they mean?

Disputed history

It is known that the animals of the zodiac have been popular since the Han Dynasty, between 206 BC and 220 AD. Pottery artefacts dating back to the Tang Dynasty, 618 to 907 AD, show the animals were popular at that time – but they have also been found on relics from the Warring States Period, 475 to 221 BC.

According to some historians, the animals of the Chinese zodiac were brought to China via the Silk Road, the central Asia trade route that brought Buddhism from India to Han China in the 1st or 2nd century BC.

Chinese new year of the goat
A zookeeper places a goat-shaped doll onto the back of an alpaca at a wildlife park in Kunming, Yunnan province, ChinaReuters

Others argue that the belief predates Buddhism and has origins in early Chinese astronomy that used Jupiter as a constant – due to its 12-year orbital period around the earth. Some suggest the use of animals in astrology began with ancient Chinese nomadic tribes, who developed the calendar for agriculture and hunting.

Yang

The translation of the Mandarin word "yang" – a "horned animal" – has led to dispute over whether the Chinese New Year will bring the year of the goat, sheep or ram. But folklorists say it is the western translation which is the problem, as the "yang" can mean either animal, depending on what Chinese character it is paired with.

Experts say it does not matter which animal the zodiac sign refers to, as the emphasis relies on the connotation of the animal. "This 'yang' is fictional. It does not refer to any specific kind of sheep or goat," Zhao Shu, a researcher with the Beijing Research Institute of Culture and History, told AFP.

The animal choice can depend on which area of Asia the person is from, as different regions of China have their own interpretations. According to Google, the phrase "the year of the ram" is most commonly used in India, followed by Canada and the United States, while the Philippines had high search levels for the "year of the sheep".

Chinese new year of the goat
A woman wipes off dust on a golden goat statuette for sale at a store in Chinatown in ManilaReuters

Chinese zodiac animals

Personality traits are associated with the zodiac animals, according to Chinese folklore.

Goat (1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027). People born in the year of the goat are associated with kindness, sensitivity, politeness and creativity.

Monkey (1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028). People born in the year of the monkey are associated with wit and intelligence.

Rooster (1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029). People born in the year of the rooster are associated with independence and punctuality.

Dog (1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030). People born in the year of the dog are associated with honesty and loyalty.

Pig (1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031). People born in the year of the pig are associated with friendliness and laziness.

Rat (1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020, 2032). People born in the year of the rat are associated with adaptability and intuition.

Ox (1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021, 2033). People born in the year of the ox are associated with conscientiousness and morality.

Tiger (1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022, 2034). People born in the year of the tiger are associated with courage, unpredictability and stubbornness.

Rabbit (1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023, 2035). People born in the year of the rabbit are impulsive, compassionate and modest.

Dragon (1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024, 2036). People born in the year of the dragon are associated with confidence, wit and dominance.

Snake (1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025, 2037). People born in the year of the snake are associated with intelligence, wisdom and privacy.

Horse (1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026, 2038). People born in the year of the horse are associated with popularity, a free spirit, hard work and intelligence.