The Vietnamese Zodiac By Barbara Cohen / Huu Ngoc
In Vietnam, the calendar was devised based on the regularly changing phases of the moon. Most Vietnamese, even city dwellers and overseas Vietnamese, have a lunar calendar in their homes to consult for festivals and auspicious dates. Because of the use of the lunar calendar, the actual days of the New Year vary from year to year.
The equinoxes and solstices that marked the beginning of the European seasons were taken as the midpoint by the Asian calendar with the result that each Vietnamese season begins six weeks earlier than its European counterpart.
Each year is “sponsored” sequentially by one of the twelve animals of the Vietnamese zodiac: the rat comes first, then the ox or buffalo, followed in order by the tiger, cat, dragon, snake, horse, goat or ram, monkey, cock, dog, and lastly, the pig. Of these animals one is mythical (the dragon) and four (rat, tiger, snake and monkey) are wild, shunning contact with humans. Seven are domesticated. Every twelve years, the sponsorship reverts to the same animal. The years 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012 are dragon years.
In addition the Vietnamese use another set of names by repeating a cycle of 60. The 60-year cycle is made up of combinations of the twelve animals representing the earthly signs of the Vietnamese zodiac and ten heavenly or celestial signs usually called “stems”. The Asian calendar forms a cycle of 60 years similar to the western century of one hundred years. The 60-year cycle begins when the first of the twelve zodiac signs is joined with the first of the ten celestial “stems”. When each of the ten “stems” is matched with an animal, the result will be 60 different sets. The celestial “stem” attached to the zodiac animal provides modifying influences on the characteristics of the animal. For example, the year of the dog sign can be “modified” by each of ten different associated “stems”.
Each year has import for humans who have converging or diverging signs. These examples are given in the order that they occur in the year. Each of the following animals sponsors a two-hour period of time of the 24-hour day.
A RAT year prophesies a year of chaos. Rat people are charming and attractive to the opposite sex, although they have a fear of light and noise. Rat people are active and dynamic but can be fussy about little things. Rats can have a positive side because if there are rats, it is a sign that there is grain in the storage bins, so rats can represent a bountiful harvest. Because it is a nocturnal animal and can be heard scurrying about at midnight, the period of time between 11pm and 1am is called the rat hour.
The BUFFALO symbolizes industriousness and patience. The year is one of slow, steady progress and patient strength; traits suitable for a scientist. He is the traditional symbol of spring and agriculture because of his association with the plow and his pleasure in wallowing in mud. People of that year are thought to possess the characteristics of that animal: steady, placid, but stubborn when crossed. The buffalo hours are from 1 am to 3 am when buffalo are feeding and the day’s farm work begins.
TIGERS are quick to anger, indecisive but can be flexible and accommodate their personalities to suit the circumstances. He is the king of the jungle, nocturnal and evokes images of darkness and stormy weather. The period from 3am to 5am is the time when the tiger returns to his lair after prowling at night.
CATS are smooth talkers, talented and ambitious and will succeed in studies. They are in conflict with the rat. A cat person has a supple mind and patient personality and knows how to wait for favorable conditions before taking action. Cat hours are between 5am and 7am, when cats begin their prowling.
The DRAGON in eastern mythology can be protective and a symbol of the male (yang) principal of the universe of royal authority. The dragon is in its element everywhere; under water, on the ground and in the air. It is a water sign and a propitious sign for agriculture. Dragons are sincere, energetic but short-tempered and stubborn. They are symbols of power, wealth and prosperity and of royalty. There is a saying “In the year of the dragon, everyone keeps his food for himself”. Famine usually appears in these years. His hours are between 7am and 9am.
SNAKES speak little but have tremendous wisdom. They are associated with the damp earth. Snakes symbolize the eternal revolution of the ages and the succession, dissolution and regeneration of humanity. Snake year people are considered calm and gentle, profound, compassionate, but may fly off the handle at times. They are determined and persistent. His hours are 9am to 11am.
HORSE year people are smooth talkers and given to compliments and generosity, therefore, they are popular, but rarely listen to advice. Its propensity to kick evokes images of a quick-tempered personality. The horse’s speed has caused him to be compared with the sun that traverses the earth daily. In legend, the sun is associated with fiery steeds. The Greek myth related to this is of Apollo driving the chariot of the sun across the skies each day. The horse is invested with purity, nobility and wisdom. It is esteemed for altertness, intelligence, strength and is a friend to man. Noontime, when the sun is the highest, is the horse hour.
The GOAT people are calm and shy, unassertive and self-effacing. They are clumsy in speech so they are poor salespersons, but are compassionate for the less fortunate, and help others. They are often taken advantage of because of their natural kindness and timidity. His hours are between 1pm and 3pm.
The MONKEY is an erratic genius. They are clever and skillful when making financial deals. They are cheerful, skillful, curious and inventive, but they may drive people away by talking too much and being contemptuous of others. Their weakness lies in their tendency to be erratic and inconsistent. The time between 3pm and 5pm is the monkey hour.
The ROOSTER year represents a period of hard work and activity as the rooster is busy from morning to night. His comb is a mark of high intelligence and of a literary spirit. People born in the year of the cock are considered profound thinkers. At the same time, he is a symbol of protection against fires. Pictures of a red cock are hung in houses for that reason. People born in the cock year earn their living from small businesses they practice with diligence like a “cock scratching the soil for worms”. Because ghosts disappear at sunrise it is believed that the cock drives them away with his crowing. A white cock is sometimes placed on the coffin of funeral processions to make the way free from demons. The cock controls the hours between 5pm and 7pm.
The year of the DOG indicates future prosperity. Worldwide, the dog is used as a guard against intruders. Pairs of stone or ceramic dogs are placed on each side of the entrance to villages and temples as guards. The dog year will be secure and protected. The hour of the dog is 7pm to 9pm when people of rural Vietnam have gone to bed and leave the dog to keep watch.
The PIG symbolizes the wealth of the forest because the boar maintains his lair in the woods. Boar year people are chivalrous and gallant, honest, courageous, but headstrong and short tempered, impulsive, studious and well informed. The hour of the pig is between 9pm and 11pm.
This chapter was excerpted from Tet, The Vietnamese Lunar New Year, by Barbara Cohen & Huu Ngoc, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Published on 3/1/98