An Overview of the Chinese Zodiac

The Chinese Zodiac, called 生肖 (shēngxiào) or “birth likeness” in Mandarin, is an ancient belief system considered to be a tool for deciding one’s destiny. Following the traditional lunar calendar, this scheme is based on a 12-year cycle in which one of 12 animals is represented with each new year. Last February, as families across the Middle Kingdom gathered together to celebrate Spring Festival, they also welcomed the 10th animal in the rotation, marking 2017 the “Year of the Rooster”. During next year’s Spring Festival, Chinese people will honor the 11th animal in the zodiac cycle, naming 2018 the “Year of the Dog”.





While western astrology emphasizes the day and month that a person was born, the Chinese system regards one’s birth year as the most important factor in determining their fate. An individual’s personality, as well as dramatic events that occur in their life, may all be influenced by the zodiac animal to which they belong. An equally significant but less widespread theory is that each lunar year is also accompanied by one of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. In accordance with the traditional philosophy, these five elements are affected by the delicate balance of Yin and Yang. For example, the lunar year 2018 will be both the “Year of the Dog” and “Yang Earth”, while 2019 will be the “Year of the Pig” and of “Yin Earth”.

   

There is no single definitive origin story, but rather many legends about how the Chinese Zodiac came to be. In contemporary China, the popular myth goes something like this: The Ruler of Heaven, also called the Jade Emperor, reigned over the universe in pre-historic times. One day, he invited all the animals on Earth to enjoy a banquet in his celestial palace. When they arrived, the Jade Emperor was so thrilled that he decided to gift each animal their own year, based on the order in which they had arrived at his palace that night. Check out the following video for the full story.



The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac



Here’s another very insightful video about the Chinese Zodiac and Chinese culture.

   

   



Vocabulary List:

Hànzì pīnyīn Definition
1. shǔ rat
2. niú cow
3. tiger
4. rabbit
5. lóng dragon
6. shé snake
7. 馬 / 马 horse
8. yáng ram
9. 猴子 hóu monkey
10. 雞 / 鸡 chicken
11. gǒu dog
12. 豬 / 猪 zhū pig



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China Loves Chili Peppers

If you have traveled to the Middle Kingdom or shared a meal with a Chinese family, you’ll know just how important chili peppers are in Chinese cuisine. Whether serving as a dish’s key ingredient or used as a seasoning for a bowl of white rice, spicy flavors are a fixture of the average Chinese palate. In fact, Mandarin even has many different words to describe different spicy flavors and the various sensations that they bring about. Check out our Chinese vocabulary list at the bottom of this page.



Images from Beautiful Guangxi



With all the hype surrounding chili peppers, one would think that these unassuming plants were indigenous to China. In actuality, chili peppers weren’t introduced to Asia until the fifteenth century, when they arrived from the Americas in seed form vis-à-vis trade ports or the silk road. Today, spicy food has become such an important part of local culture that many families grow their own pepper plants and mix up their own spicy sauces at home, to be found on the table at virtually every meal.



Images from Beautiful Guangxi



Two Videos to Change Your View of Chili Peppers

If you want to discover just how important chili peppers are to some Chinese people, be sure to check out this video of China’s “Chili man, ” the Henan-native who claims to eat several kilograms of chili peppers every day!

 

   

In the Middle Kingdom, it’s not uncommon to see chili-eating competitions, in which contestants compete to see who can pack the most heat. Watch this short video and let us know if you think you’d have what it takes to be crowned China’s “chili king” (or queen).

 

Are you ready to add some heat to your Mandarin skills? Check out these spicy-themed vocabulary words!



Vocabulary List:

Hànzì pīnyīn Definition
1. 辣椒 là jiāo hot peppers
2. 酸辣 suān là spicy and sour
3. 麻辣 má là spicy and numbing
4. 微辣 wēi là mildly spicy
5. 胡椒 hú jiāo pepper
6. 晒干 shài gān to dry in the sun
7. 凉快 liáng kuài nice and cool
8. 植物 zhí wù plant
9. 农村 nóng cūn countryside
10. 方法 fāng fǎ method



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Chinese Traditional Shadow Plays

Have you heard of Chinese shadow plays, an art considered by many to be the world’s first ever form of puppetry? Traditionally constructed out of natural materials like animal skins and mineral pigments, these marionette-like figurines are painted in order to symbolize archetypal characters from Chinese legends. Placed against translucent cloth screens, puppets are then manipulated by skilled masters to create the illusion of movement which is usually accompanied by song and dance. Through their performances, shadow plays work to pass on historical stories, social morals and cultural myths from generation to generation.





The roots of shadow puppetry in China can be traced back to the early Han Dynasty, where the practice served as a form of entertainment reserved only for nobility. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, shadow puppetry began spreading to the working class where it was embraced as a people’s folk art. In the dynasties that followed, shadow puppetry became a celebratory custom for farming and laboring families, with thousands of specialized troupes traveling and performing across the nation.





During the communist revolution in the mid-twentieth century, shadow puppetry was temporarily banned in provinces where officials viewed it as a negative reminder of feudal tradition. Despite suffering a decline in popularity into the present, shadow puppetry nonetheless remains a significant and fascinating symbol of Chinese cultural history.





Study the following vocabulary words and show off your knowledge of traditional shadow plays to the next Chinese speaker you come across!



Vocabulary List:

Hànzì Pīnyīn Definition
1. 皮影戏 pí yǐng xì shadow play
2. 传说 chuán shuō legend
3. lóng dragon
4. 木偶 mù ǒu puppet
5. 影子 yǐng zi shadow
6. 画师 huà shī artist
7. 脚本 jiǎo běn script
8. 歌曲 gē qū songs
9. 音乐 yīn yuè music
10. 文化 wén huà culture
11. 服装 fú zhuāng costume
12. 表演 biǎo yǎn performance



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