Chinese Astrology and Zodiac: The Heaven-Human Communication
Chinese astrology is a highly complex, interconnected system that takes years of rigorous study to learn and understand well enough to use for divination or auspicious placement and scheduling.
The History of Chinese Astrology
The Treatise on Astrology, from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), is a famous work in which author Sima Qian writes that astrology is to understand historical changes, and explore the relationship between people and heaven.
Qian drew analogies between the celestial realm and the imperial regime; each star corresponded to a government bureau and its officials, showing the political character of ancient Chinese astrology.
The development of astrology had a deep influence on philosophy and was used to explain phenomena. Colors, sizes, locations and relationships in astrology led to assumptions about political and social changes.
After the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960-1279 AD and 1279-1368 AD), astrology as a soothsaying method went its separate way from astronomy, and became more and more mysterious before declining at the end of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The later development of Chinese astrology went towards superstition and gradually strayed far from original scientific tradition.
Although the Chinese studied astrology for some thousand years, they made no progress in the real knowledge of stars in the end, except some blind faith and absurd misleading. By the time western horoscope techniques were introduced in China, the Chinese had already developed their own art for measuring and guessing fates; it mostly fell flat in the development of astronomy.
In traditional Chinese astrology, the idea of foretelling political events and an individual’s fate is the same as in Hellenistic tradition, but the method employed is distinctly different. The Chinese version has not been as directly concerned with celestial motions and mathematical calculations as western astrology.
Three Essential Features of Chinese Astrology
1. Empirical collection of data
Chinese court astrology consisted of the accumulation of celestial, meteorological, climatological and seismological phenomena (sunspots, comets, eclipses, extreme weather, hailstorms, earthquakes, etc.) and their correlation with events in society relevant to the success of the Imperial regime.
The observations and instruments used were brought and monopolized by the learned men who usually served the emperor.
2. Official character
Celestial phenomena were thought to imply grave political consequences and matters of great concern to the emperor. According to Chinese theories, especially Confucianism, the monarch was a man of excellent virtue whose title to the throne was bestowed by heaven. So if he did not succeed in certain ways, he was not qualified for the throne.
To use astrology as accurately as possible and take countermeasures quickly, the ruler would appoint astrologers to research the sky and supply information to help shape the ruler’s political decisions. In return, they would gain high positions in court bureaucracy. Astrologers particularly played a significant part when the emperor considered important military actions.
Because of the close relations between astrology and decision-making, ancient Chinese historical books were full of astronomical records, and historiographers were usually also astrologers.
3. A calendar combined with other theories
The primary goal of astronomy was the production of the official almanac; if it was published, patterns seemed to be fixed down; then astrologers could rely on calendar indications rather than astronomical calculation or observations directly.
Ancient Chinese astrologers identified 28 lunar mansions from the whole sky, used as coordinates. They were divided into four areas: east, west, south and north, which were categorized by four animals: stars in the east looked like a dragon, as a tiger in the west; as a big bird in the south and as a tiger and turtle in the north.
On top of this, there were four mythical animals: Cyan dragon in the east, white tiger in the west, red phoenix in the south and black tortoise in the north. Each area included seven mansions and each mansion included several constellations.
In another interpretation, the 28 lunar mansions belonged to 12 paired groups and were associated with 12 feudal states.
After the tenth century, the official almanac was printed and distributed to the public and used widely as guides for scheduling personal conduct. In the margin of these calendars were illustrations and notes about lucky and unlucky days, the best days to get married, undertake a journey, for making dresses, buying, building, presenting petitions to the emperor, and many other events in ordinary life.
The almanac continues to be published every year and is a massive seller before Chinese New Year. However, it is not so easy to understand why a particular day is lucky or not; overall comprehension of the almanac asks for a prolonged study of Chinese philosophy and astrology so much of it is obscure. But the poorer classes are prudent and keen, and observe the almanac carefully; they marry, bury, cultivate and even bathe when it advises.
From Astrology to the Zodiac
The Chinese zodiac consists of a cycle of a dozen years, each of which is symbolized by its own animal. These twelve animals exist in folk customs and sayings, supplying a popular theme to traditional art.
According to a Buddhist story, one Chinese New Year the Buddha invited all the animals in the world to come pay their respects. Only twelve appeared: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. In gratitude, the Buddha decided to name years after the animals in their arriving order.
The animals embody characteristics of those born in that year, which is called a Benming year, and occurs every twelve years. It is said that in one’s Benming year, people will have unpredictable fortune, facing many ups and downs, and the best way to avoid misery is to wear red.
Zodiac signs also reveal one’s age implicitly. Instead of asking someone’s age directly, inquiring about the animal sign is a good idea.
It is believed that certain animals are incompatible, such as monkeys and tigers, roosters and rabbits, or pigs and snakes. Other animals are very compatible, such as the monkey, rat and dragon; dog, tiger and horse; or pig, rabbit and sheep.
Not all people born in the same year share the same personal characteristics, of course. The Chinese believe that personality and destiny are also based on many other factors, including month, day, and even hour of birth. Therefore, when people turn to a soothsayer to predict the future, especially for wealth and marriage, they will supply their date of birth and eight characters of horoscope for reference.