Western concept of time is linear, meaning time proceeds in a straight line from past, to present, and future, while traditional China uses a 12-year-cycle for dating the years. Each Chinese year corresponds to one of 12 different animals with certain personality traits, and the animal signs (or zodiac) repeat every 12 years in the following order:
- Rat: charming, hardworking, thrifty, ambitious
- Ox: patient, alert, quiet, stubborn
- Tiger: sensitive, sympathetic, indecisive, powerful
- Rabbit: articulate, talented, kind, financially lucky
- Dragon: healthy, energetic, excitable, brave
- Snake: intense, passionate, wise, hates to fail
- Horse: popular, cheerful, perceptive, independent
- Ram: elegant, creative, shy, pessimistic
- Monkey: clever, flexible, inventive, sensible
- Rooster: busy, eccentric, deep thinker, loner
- Dog: loyal, honest, good leader, secret keeper
- Pig: chivalrous, determined, studious, problem solver
Legend has it that the 12 animals argued who would be first, so the gods called for a swimming contest. All 12 animals fathered at a river bank and jumped in, but the rat shrewdly hopped on the ox’s back. Although the ox reached the opposite shore first, the rat leaped onto land and won the race before the ox climbed out of the water.
Proper Chinese culture frowns upon asking people’s ages directly, but knowing their zodiac sign is a polite way of estimating (within 12 years) how old they are. Using common sense, one could determine that the new neighbor is 73 years old rather than 61 or 85.