Spring Festival: A Brief History of the Chinese New Year

by Michael Bedford

Published at 2020-01-22

On January 25, 2020, the Chinese lunar calendar will turn over once again. In preparation for this year’s Spring Festival, I did some research, and prepared a brief history of this important annual event. The Chinese calendar is a complicated and storied institution with uncertain origins, but key points to remember are that years, months, days, and even hours are associated with animal and elemental symbols. These associations are determined by way of a repeating 60-year system.


4658, 4718, or the 78th/79th Iteration of Gēng Zǐ?

Although 2020 could be said to be the 4718th year in the Chinese calendar, one could also call 2020 the 4658th year. This is because the practice of numbering years sequentially within the Chinese calendar is complicated by a controversy over which year marks year one. Some choose to mark the calendar’s first year as 2698 BCE, the supposed beginning of the reign of Emperor Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor, who is generally credited as the inventor of the Chinese calendar. Others choose to mark 2638 BCE as the first year of the Chinese calendar since the earliest recorded use of the calendar dates back to this year.


The official system in place since China’s 1911 revolution, however, marks 2020 as the 37th year in the 78th 60-year cycle, the first 60-year cycle having started in 2638 BCE. The preference of the 60-year cycle system over an infinite sequence of years system — such as the one the modern Gregorian calendar employs — has its roots in the republican sentiments of the 1911 revolutionaries who no longer wanted their calendar associated with the ongoing reign of an emperor.


According to the 60-year cycle system, 2020 represents “gēng zǐ,” or year of the Yang Metal Rat in the 78th or 79th 60-year cycle, depending on whether one takes 2638 or 2698 as year one.


The Year of the Yang Metal Rat

Previous to 2020, the last year of the Yang Metal Rat was 1960, and some are already making predictions that 2020 will be a watershed year for a variety of social and economic developments across the globe. Rats play a significant role in Chinese mythology, often representing change and renewal. A Chinese creation myth states that life started when a rat gnawed a hole in the shell of the universe, allowing air to enter. The air, in turn, invigorated all life in the universe. For this reason, Rat years are always considered significant opportunities for social upheaval and progress.


That the coming Chinese calendar year is a Yang Metal year, in addition to a Rat year, is supposed to indicate that it will be a good year to start laying groundwork for future plans. Yang Metal energy indicates the integration of a strong and lasting framework for the years ahead. That the most recent year of the Yang Metal Rat was 1960, an important symbolic year in terms of the Civil Rights movement, is already a topic of conversation amongst Chinese astrologers. Unfortunately, civil rights crusaders may find that they have their work cut out for them: supposedly, 2020 should also be a good year for both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, both born in years of the Rat.


Inner Animals, True Animals, and Secret Animals

In general, people born in Rat years are adaptable, industrious, and alert. Rats tend to get along with others, but Rats born in the evening have a tougher go, tending toward arrogance and pride. One wonders at what time of day Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were born, since other notable Rats include Phil Hartman, Alan Turing, Rosa Parks, and Wilt Chamberlain.


The above list shows a wide range of personalities indeed. But, avoiding potential critiques that associating yin or yang, an element, and an animal with particular years in a 60-year cycle is not specific enough, the Chinese zodiac further classifies months, days, and hours. This means that though someone might be a Tiger, they could also be a Snake, a Rat, and a Dog.


The Inner Animal

Someone born in 1986 is a Tiger. That someone born in 1986 is a Tiger, though, only pertains to their public persona. A person born on June 5, 1986 would be a Tiger publicly, but their Inner Animal would be a Snake. Information about the Inner Animal is said to pertain to less obvious characteristics that one might only rarely share with others.


The True Animal

A person born on June 5, 1986 would also be a Rat since June 5, 1986 was a Thursday. The day of the week one is born on is said to provide critical information about one’s True Animal, the True Animal representing what one will accomplish in their adult life.


The Secret Animal

Providing the final level of detail, if someone was born on Thursday June 5, 1986 at 7:45 PM then that person would also be a Dog as the hour of one’s birth is said to determine one’s Secret Animal, which represents what one is like at their core. So, although our example is a Tiger publicly — meaning that they present in public as brave, unpredictable, and stubborn — they are truly and secretly a Dog, someone who is loyal, cautious, and kind.


“Kung Hei Fat Choy”

The nature of the Secret Animal makes it seem like the deciding factor in one’s destiny is the time of day that one is born. Instead though, the Secret, True, Inner, and Public Animals all interact together, making up each person’s complicated personality. What is important is how these animals and elements interconnect. In terms of the year to come, I can’t imagine many things being able to get the drop on a big, shiny, metal rat so “Kung Hei Fat Choy!” Get those projects started and don’t look back. After all, 2021 will be a Yin Metal Ox, so get ready!





Turns out Michael is a Yin Water Pig-Metal Monkey-Ox and Tiger-Dragon! What sign are you? Check out this article and chart your own zodiac!


Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Mount Hope, Ontario. He can be reached at