Every February, China ushers in a New Year. This important holiday is celebrated through a variety of traditions centering on family, peace, and prosperity.
The most widely recognized symbol of a new year in China is the Chinese Zodiac, or Sheng Xiao. Based on a 12 year cycle and calculated by the Chinese lunar calendar, the zodiac is represented by 12 unique animals (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep/Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig). Each one rules over a calendar year, cycling through the symbols in a specific order.
2015 is known as the Year of the Sheep (or Goat).
Where did the Chinese Zodiac come from?
There are numerous legends about the zodiac that have been passed down for generations in China.
The most popular story is that the Jade Emperor made it known that animals would be chosen to represent the calendar and that the first twelve who crossed the river to meet him would be selected. The animals were excited and determined to be one of the twelve. The rat and the cat made a pact to help each other. Unfortunately, the rat was eager and forgot to make sure the cat was with him the next day when he set off to meet the Emperor.
Seeing the much larger and faster animals traveling, the rat made a deal with the ox to carry him across the river. The ox’s heart soared when he realized he was going to be the first one to reach the Emperor. Unfortunately, the rat ran off the ox, sneaking in just ahead of him, so he became the first animal of the Chinese Zodiac.
The cat finally arrived, but only after twelve other animals, so he was not chosen. It is said that this is why the rat and cat are no longer friends.
Many believe that the animal under which you are born greatly influences who you are, as well as your destiny. A popular saying is that the symbol that represents your birth is “the animal that hides in your heart.”
This Chinese New Year, consider having your older students research this fascinating part of the holiday. They can study the twelve symbols or just the one of their birth year. Then, spend time discussing what they found and what they think.
Questions to Consider
- What are the positive and negative traits of the twelve animals?
- Do you believe a yearly symbol can influence who you are?
- Do you think the characteristics you found match the animal?
- What is the probability that all characteristics listed will relate to you?
- Are there any traits that you feel match you and your personality?
Chinese Zodiac Activity
A fun way for your student to preserve their research is to encourage them to create their own animal cards.
- Index cards
- Adhesive (glue dots, glue stick, spray adhesive)
- Lead pencil
- Colored pencils
- Thin, black marker
Cut one index card down to 2” x 3” and glue it, line side up, to the bottom of a second card. Make 12 of these, one for each animal.
In the large, blank space, draw one of the animals and color it, using your creativity. Using the black marker to outline the drawing will help it stand out.
My middle schooler used a variety of resources for designing her cards, including the internet and items from our bookshelf. Her main inspiration for many of her designs was the art of Chinese paper cutting. She just fell in love with it!
On the available lines, write down the next year that the animal will be representing, as well as some of the positive and negative character traits you learned about.
These cards are a simple and unique way to have your children highlight what they’ve learned.
Interested in learning more about Chinese New Year and the Chinese Zodiac? These books will help you get started:
Chinese New Year Activity Book by Karl Jones is a useful book if you’re looking for more hands-on activities to do with your kids to celebrate the New Year.
Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes by Nina Simonds is full of stories, recipes, and projects to help your family celebrate popular Chinese holidays, including the New Year.
The Year of the Sheep (Tales from the Chinese Zodiac) by Oliver Chin is part of Tales from the Chinese Zodiac, an annual storybook collection. It is a cute story that shares the importance of this year’s symbolic animal, the sheep.
Happy New Year and may you find joy and prosperity during the Year of the Sheep!
What is your favorite way to celebrate the Chinese New Year?