Chinese New Year 2020 Animal: Year of the Rat Zodiac Sign, Meaning Explained

2020 is the Year of the Rat, inaugurating a new 12-year cycle in the Chinese zodiac, beginning on Saturday, January 25—the Lunar New Year.

The Chinese zodiac consists of 12 animals, which do not equate to specific constellations, as in the Western astrological tradition. Instead, the repeating 12-year cycle—rotating through Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig—is based in ancient astronomical observations of Jupiter's approximately 12-year orbit of the sun.

The exact origins of the Chinese zodiac are unknown, but associations between animals and years developed were codified during the Han Dynasty—sometime between the second century B.C. and second century A.D.—and became popular as birth year indicators in subsequent centuries. The lunar calendar on which the Chinese zodiac depends is even older, with origins in the Zhou dynasty, which ruled parts of China for nearly 800 years until its final defeat in 222 B.C., toward the end of the Warring States period.

While China switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1921, the Chinese lunar calendar—which sets the beginning of months based on the new moon, with the new year determined in relation to the winter solstice—continues to be used for holidays like Chinese New Year and has been adopted by other cultures and countries in the region, including Korea and Vietnam.

Fireworks are lit to celebrate Lunar New Year and the advent of the Year of the Rat on January 25, 2020 in Hue, Vietnam. Photo by Linh Pham/Getty Images

Year of the Rat

Each Chinese zodiac year couples an animal with one of five rotating elements—water, wood, fire, metal, earth—making 2020 not just the Year of the Rat, but the Year of the Metal Rat. Or, since the Chinese symbol for rat can also refer to a mouse and other small rodents, those born between January 25, 2020 and February 11, 2021 could also consider themselves metal mice.

Similar to astrological compatibility, tradition holds that those born in the Year of the Rat are best matched with other rats, dragons or monkeys—with horses as the incompatible, even enemy, opposites. Oxes are good matches, while goats can be a match, or someone best avoided entirely.

The spread of coronavirus has blunted celebrations of the Lunar New Year in China, where travel restrictions have affected celebrants, like this girl standing next to a "Year of the Rat" display in a Beijing railway station. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Similar to astrology, the zodiacal Rat is laden with multiple layers of symbolism. Associated with the hour before and after midnight, the rat typically represents new beginnings. They are powerful symbols of fertility, wealth and plenty, so people born in the Year of the Rat are considered to be optimistic, easy-going and kind, if a bit too direct.

Lucky associations with the Year of the Rat include the numbers two and three, and the colors gold, blue and green. Meanwhile, the colors yellow or brown and the numbers five and nine can be considered unlucky.

The Chinese zodiac can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The Diplomat, a Washington D.C.-based news magazine covering the Asia-Pacific region, has even used the Year of the Rat to analyze the future of China itself, predicting 2020 will be a year of renewal, and a chance "to turn unfortunate events into fortunate ones."

The Chinese zodiac animal for your own birth year will also have its own unique interactions with the Year of the Rat.

For those who want to dive even deeper into Chinese astrology, animal signs designate more than just years. There's also the "inner animal" assigned to each month, the "true animal" assigned to each day and the "secret animal" assigned to each hour. When it comes to mapping a personality, a person is more than just the animal of their birth year, reflecting internal, "true" and secret qualities based on the other animal signs associated with the hour and day of their birth.