The 12 Chinese Zodiac Signs and Five Elements, Explained

There's no better time to learn more about the 2,000-year-old system.

Different color fabric with gold appliques of each Chinese zodiac sign animal is layered across each other
Photo: Getty Images

If you're a casual astrology fan, you may not realize that Western astrology is just one system of many. China has had its own system called Sheng Xiao (生肖) which dates back to the Qin dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago. And the Chinese zodiac has been used ever since the Han Dynasty (ca. 150 CE), when the "idea that there are greater forces at work in the mapping of individual destiny" became popularized, according to authors Gerry Maguire Thompson and Shuen-Lian Hsaio in The Guide to Chinese Horoscopes.

In Chinese astrology, every year is ruled by a Chinese zodiac sign, which cycles every 12 years. Each sign is represented by an animal that is associated with certain traits. And you can pinpoint your Chinese zodiac sign by figuring out which sign ruled your birth year.

Here are the basics of Chinese zodiac signs and years, personalities, sign compatibility, and the Shen Xiao take on zodiac sign elements.

Chinese Zodiac Signs, Years, and Personality Traits


Birth Years: 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008

Rats are self-starters who have extraordinarily sharp communication skills. They love being involved in their community and are both detail-oriented and artistic. Sensitive and intuitive, they are risk-averse and tend to be quite organized. Rats are most compatible with Oxes and least compatible with Horses.


Birth Years: 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009

Oxes are down-to-earth, contemplative and have excellent memories, love spending time in nature, and are skilled multitaskers. Thought of as industrious and persistent workers, they have no problem stepping up and taking responsibility. They're generally quiet and not the most expressive emotionally. Oxes are most compatible with Rats and least compatible with Goats.


Birth Years: 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010

Tigers, like their namesake, are go-getters who are loyal, loving fans of luxury. They pride themselves on being free-thinking and come off as downright fearless. Fighters for justice with high self-esteem, Tigers tend to make formidable leaders. Tigers are most compatible with Pigs and least compatible with Monkeys.


Birth Years: 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011

Rabbits tend to be gentle, polite, patient, and intelligent. They're charming and diplomatic and love soaking up knowledge. Known to be somewhat homebody-ish, they're always up for lending a helping hand and pouring their heart into caring for the people they love. Rabbits are most compatible with Dogs and least compatible with Roosters.


Birth Years: 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012

Dragons are fierce, feisty fireball extroverts who are known for their loyalty to family and friends, self-sufficiency, and ability to lead. They adore adventure and romance. Although they might come off as lazy at times, they have no problem self-motivating when it comes to anything they're truly fired up about. Dragons are most compatible with Roosters and least compatible with Dogs.


Birth Years: 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013

Snakes have a desire to keep the peace, inspire people by being artistic, and are uniquely in tune with their intuition (and might actually be a bit psychic). They radiate charming, enchanting energy. Devoted and determined, they want to fully understand others. Snakes are most compatible with Monkeys and least compatible with Pigs.


Birth Years: 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014

Horses are perceived as the life of any party and a heartfelt shoulder to lean on. Positive, energetic, and wired to fight until they win, they're passionate about taking a stand, expressing how they feel, and having the freedom to live the life they've envisioned for themselves. Horses are most compatible with Goats and least compatible with Rats.


Birth Years: 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015

Goats make new friends effortlessly, are dreamers, were born with a gift for creative pursuits, and tend to be incredibly perceptive and nurturing. They're peacemakers who would prefer not to rock the boat. Patient, polite, and persuasive, they possess a quiet determination to achieve even the loftiest goals. Goats are most compatible with Horses and least compatible with Oxes.


Birth Years: 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016

Monkeys are free-spirited individualists who are amicable and have no trouble starting a conversation with just about anyone. They crack people up with their light, engaging sense of humor, and love being in the spotlight. Full of energy and endlessly curious, they greatly value their relationships. Monkeys are most compatible with Snakes and least compatible with Tigers.


Birth Years: 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005

Roosters are highly persistent when it comes to pursuing their goals, have high emotional intelligence and unrelenting courage and resilience, find stimulation from risk-taking and adventure, and have an eye-catching sense of style. They're thought to make great friends and be super-creative. Roosters are most compatible with Dragons and least compatible with Rabbits.


Birth Years: 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006

Dogs are thought to be family- and service-oriented, direct, trustworthy, and unselfish. They show bottomless determination and stamina at work, wear their hearts on their sleeve, and easily can engage others as a storyteller. Dogs are most compatible with Rabbits and least compatible with Dragons.


Birth Years: 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007

Pigs are perfectionists who seem young at heart, tend to be avid listeners, and have a knack for being patient with others. Generous and outgoing, they might also suffer from being fearful, impatient, and hair-trigger. Pigs are most compatible with Tigers and least compatible with Snakes.

Chinese Zodiac Elements

If you're familiar with Western astrology you know that there are three signs per element: water, earth, fire, and air. In the Chinese zodiac, the elements are different and aren't used in quite the same way.

The five elements in Chinese astrology are water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. Here's a quick synopsis of how to think about and determine which element you were born under.

The Fixed Elements

Each Chinese zodiac sign is associated with a fixed, or perpetual, element.

Metal: Monkey, Rooster

Wood: Tiger, Rabbit

Water: Rat, Pig

Fire: Snake, Horse

Earth: Ox, Dragon, Goat, Dog

Annual Elements

Every year is associated with an element as well. Depending on what year you were born, you'll get a unique combination of a sign and an element. For example, although Oxes are perpetually associated with the Earth element, the year 1997 is the Fire element. So babies born that year are Fire Oxes.

Here are the qualities associated with each element, according to The Guide to Chinese Horoscopes:

Metal: Solidity and willpower

Water: Responsiveness and persuasion

Wood: Imagination and creativity

Fire: Passion and bursts of dynamic energy

Earth: Down-to-earth qualities that encourage focus and commitment to achieve goals

To figure out which element was associated with your birth year, look for the last number of your birth year, recommends CafeAstrology:

0 or 1: Metal

2 or 3: Water

4 or 5: Wood

6 or 7: Fire

8 or 9: Earth

By landing on your unique Chinese zodiac sign and element combo, you can get a better sense of not only your perspective as you move through the world but how you might experience the ever-shifting astrological tides. If you want to learn more, check out your Chinese Zodiac horoscope on or

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