According to ancient Chinese superstition, the Jade emperor devised a race between 13 animals and announced that the calendar years will be named according to the order they arrived in. To get across the river, the rat jumped on the back of the ox and remained there until just before the end, when it jumped off and claimed the win. Consequently, the year of the rat is the first year of the Chinese horoscope.
2020 was the year of the rat, which we remain in until February 12th, when the year of the ox will begin. For the human race, 2020 is the year of coronavirus, and the pandemic has outrun us, using intelligence and resourcefulness that has outwitted the best of human expertise; and humbled us, who like to think of ourselves as the most intelligent animal on the planet. Rats also have a strong reproductive capacity, which resonates strongly as far as our battle with the virus is concerned. Now we look to the year of the ox: what characteristics does the ox have which can inspire us in 2021, and finally overcome our universal foe?
Loyalty, reliability, thoroughness, strength, reasonability, steadiness, determination. These sound like attractive qualities for our mission to recover from the damage caused by the pandemic. All the Chinese horoscope signs have a combination of positive and negative traits, which are thought to balance themselves out. The Chinese horoscope has been used in Eastern cultures for 3,000 years as a guide to predict prospects for all manner of things, from love matches to career choices. Today, dating and recruitment agencies continue to use forecasting methods, which serve the same purpose, use methods from personality psychology to optimise compatibility and effectiveness. Empirical evidence points to the efficacy of these systems; the desire to categorise and predict to achieve optimum outcomes is enticing.
The Chinese horoscope is far more intricate than the twelve animal signs. Among further complexities such as time of birth, it is crosscut with five elements: fire, wood, earth, water, and metal, which leads to a 60 year cycle: 2021 is the year of the metal ox – the last time this occurred was 1960. This gives a much broader scope for differences between people. So, identifying yourself by your element and animal is a way of revealing not only your age but much more – it’s commonly used as an ‘ice breaker’ among university students in China.
So how different are ideas from the Chinese horoscope to modern type and trait psychology? Both have similar aims and draw upon visual imagery. Psychometric testing is the modern name given to what is an ancient practice. Systems of categorisation provide a useful shorthand for informed professionals to discuss the personal qualities of candidates in a given field. These days, with access to information at our fingertips, we can be knowing participants in these assessments. So why are we drawn to personality tests? Myers-Briggs developed their renowned model based on Carl Jung’s personality type theory, and similarly, Lowry’s true colours system, but Jung himself was influenced by ancient Greek philosophers in developing his theory, demonstrating that the ideas of the ancients span the millennia and continue to influence and inspire us today. Saying you’re an INFJ personality doesn’t have the same ring as being a metal ox, but whether we are attracted to Chinese animal characteristics, the qualities of the Greek gods, or modern applications, there is tremendous value in feeling a sense of belonging to an exclusive group – we remain as curious about our own identities as those of others.
And never more so than at a time when we have been rendered so isolated as the pandemic rolls on. There is some comfort to be gained from engaging with ideas that unite us and inspire us. Perhaps we all need to jump on the back of the metalox, and trust in its strength and endurance to bring us across the finishing line in the race against the pandemic.
Erica Lowry (2009) ‘The Origins of Temperament and True Colours’