The Chinese Zodiac in Art

Follow the zodiac animals across 1000 years of art history

This Lunar New Year, we move into the Year of the Pig. But what does this mean?

The pig is one of the 12 animals of the zodiac. In Chinese and other East Asian traditions, each year is characterized by an animal: most commonly the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Legend says that this is the order the animals crossed the finish line in a great race held by the Jade Emperor.

Which Chinese Zodiac sign are you?

Each of the twelve animals is said to embody certain personalities and characteristics. Some believe that the year has these characteristics, while others think people born in that year will exhibit these specific personality traits.

The zodiac animals are all strong cultural symbols of good luck within East Asian traditions. As such, they have often popped up in arts and crafts from the region over the centuries. Find your zodiac sign to discover a specially-chosen artwork featuring your animal...

Chinese Zodiac Offering Best Wishes, Ren Yude, 1998 (From the collection of China Intangible Heritage Industry Alliance)

Rat – 鼠 (子)

2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960

The humble rat (also sometimes translated into English as a mouse) won the Jade Emperor's animal race. Rather than his size or strength, the rat won thanks to his shrewd and cunning nature.

But the rats in this artwork seem more cute and timid than conniving. This woodblock print is by the Japanese artist Shibata Zeshin, dating from the mid to late 19th Century.

Six Rats, Shibata Zeshin, mid to late 19th century (From the collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Ox – 牛 (丑)

2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961

The ox or cow represents hard work and diligence in the Chinese zodiac. People born in the Year of the Ox are said to be determined and honest, if a little stubborn!

This eye-catching sculpture by the contemporary Korean artist Yong Meon Kang pays homage to the ox's wisdom, as well as the hard work and sacrifices he makes for mankind. Here the ox's entire body is created with symbols of human culture - like airplanes and cars.

Taking a Lesson from the Past - Year of the Ox, Kang, Yong Meon, 2009 (From the collection of the Korean Art Museum Association)

Tiger – 虎 (寅)

2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962

The third animal in the zodiac, the tiger is renowned for being brave and confident.

Here we can see a ceramic pillow in the shape of a crouching tiger. Used in the summertime, this pillow for sleeping takes the form of a tiger because, according to Chinese lore, the strong, fierce tiger frightens away malevolent spirits.

Cizhou Ware Pillow in the Form of a Tiger, Artist Unknown, 1182 (From the Brooklyn Museum collection)

Rabbit – 兔 (卯)

2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963

Each zodiac animal has a series of different lucky symbols, colors and numbers. For example, the rabbit's lucky dates are the 26th, 27th and 29th of every Chinese lunar month; their lucky flowers are plantain lily, and jasmine; and their lucky colors are red, pink, purple, blue!

Within the zodiac, the rabbit is said to represent elegance and alertness, both of which can be seen in this very elegant incense box featuring an alert-looking rabbit, dating from the mid 17th century.

Kyoto ware incense box in shape of crouching rabbit, Nonomura Ninsei, mid 17th century or later (From the collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries)

Dragon – 龍 / 龙 (辰)

2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964

Each zodiac animal is associated with one of five elements: Wood, Water, Gold (or Metal), Fire, and Earth. So, for a Dragon for example, there are actually five different types: Water Dragon, Earth Dragon, and so on. This semi-formal court robe is made of tapestry-woven silk and gold-wrapped thread - perfect for a Gold Dragon!

The dragon is a supernatural beast. Historically, the Chinese believed that it could cause rain—meaning it was hugely important for a largely agricultural country. Over time, it has become a symbol of masculine vigor and fertility as well as imperial authority. Robes with five-clawed dragons like this one were restricted to the use of the emperor, the heir-apparent and high-ranking princes.

Man's jifu (dragon robe), 1675 - 1700 (From the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum)

Snake – 蛇 (巳)

2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965

Here we can see a shadow puppet by Wang Tianxi. Flanked by a rock hill on one side and thriving trees on the other, the snake rack is covered with curly snakes and dragons, with even the stone table and stools underneath surrounded by snakes and frogs.

Like the shadows from this Hua County puppet, snakes are said to be shady. Similarly, people born in the year of the snake are said to be super smart, if a little untrustworthy and ssssssneaky.

Snake Rack, Wang Tianxi, 2000 (From the collection of China Intangible Heritage Industry Alliance)

Horse – 馬 / 马 (午)

2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966

The horse is the seventh animal in the Chinese zodiac. Full of energy, famous horse signs include Neil Armstrong, Isaac Newton and Jackie Chan.

This ink painting is by artist Xu Beihong. Unlike most horse paintings from his day which show horses from the side or front, Xu Beihong's elegant horse is shown at a 3/4 angle, capturing the full energy of its gallop.

Galloping horse 奔馬圖, XuBeihong 徐悲, 1953 (From the collection of China Modern Contemporary Art Document)

Goat – 羊 (未)

2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967

In Chinese culture, the goat is a much-beloved domesticated animal that has been in a companion to Chinese people for Millennia. The goat has been endowed with propitious meanings due to both its gentle character as well as the fact that the Chinese words for “goat” and “sun” sound similar.

This paper folding fan has guards and ribs coated with jinxing lacquer. One side of its panel features the modern calligrapher Wu Xinru’s running-script calligraphy, while the other is embellished with a painting of three goats, an auspicious token of fortune.

Modern Folding Fan with Auspicious Goat Painting and Running-script Calligraphy (From the collection of the Arts & Crafts Museum Hangzhou)

Monkey – 猴 (申)

2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968

Intelligent, quick-witted and agile, the monkey was last year's zodiac sign.

According to Chinese legend, the monkey only finished ninth in the Jade Emperor's Great Race, but the animal still occupies a top spot among art subjects. This adorable ink print by Ogata Gekko illustrates the traditional parable of the monkey who reached for the reflection of the moon, missing the real moon in the sky.

Monkey Reaching for the Moon, Ogata Gekkoca,  1890-1910 (From the collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries)

Rooster – 雞 / 鸡 (酉)

2017, 2005, 1993, 1981, 1969

Last year was the year of the rooster. But bad news for those who actually have the rooster as their zodiac sign; your zodiac year is said to bring bad luck!

This miniature earthenware rooster dates from 25 - 220 CE.

Miniature rooster, 25-220 (From the collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries)

Dog – 狗 / 犬 (戌)

2018, 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970

The dog is the 11th animal in the Chinese zodiac. Dogs are supposedly the most loyal and honest of the zodiac signs.

This 16th Century Korean artwork by Yi Am shows a mother dog caring for her adorable pups.

Mother Dog, Yi Am, 1499/1599 (From the collection of the Korea Database Agency)

Pig – 豬 / 猪 (亥)

2019, 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971

This tiny pig is made of glass and stands at less than 5cm tall!

Unfortunately, sometimes nice guys finish last. The pig is the most kind and compassionate of all of the zodiac signs but, according to legend, it lost the Jade Emperor's race, making it the final zodiac animal.

Burmese Pig Whimsy, Gundersen Pairpoint Glass Works, 1950 - 1959 (From the Corning Museum of Glass collection)

Good luck for the Year of the Pig!

Continue exploring the Arts of the New Moon project here.

Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
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