Lesson Plan

Animals of the Chinese Zodiac

Chinese dragon in a dragon-dance for Chinese New Year.
Photo caption

Chinese dragon in a dragon-dance for Chinese New Year.

The Chinese lunar calendar dates back to the second millennium BCE. Unlike our calendar, which numbers the years progressively from a given time (the birth of Christ), the Chinese calendar is cyclical. Each cycle is made up of 12 years; after the 12th year, the cycle is repeated. The Chinese associate each year of a 12-year cycle with an animal, and they refer to the years as "the year of the dragon," "the year of the ox," and so forth. The 12 animals and the years associated with them are often represented on a circular chart, and for this reason they are known as animals of the zodiac.

The use of the animal names in the calendar led to the development of Chinese astrology. Astrology can be defined as a pseudo-science linking human destinies to charts associated with heavenly bodies or the recording of time. The Chinese believed the characteristics of a given zodiac animal influenced the personality of every person born in that year. They used this information to create horoscopes, daily predictions based upon the year of one's birth. Although the reading of horoscopes is popular in modern Chinese culture, few people take the predictions seriously.

In this lesson plan, students will learn about the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. In the introductory first lesson, they will see how animals are often used as symbols. In the second lesson, they will hear one of several versions of how the 12 animals were chosen. They will then focus upon a few of the animals in the story and see how they can be used as symbols of certain human characteristics. In the third lesson, they will be introduced to the other animals of the zodiac, and they will be given a chart on which they will assign traits to each animal. Then they will consult a number of websites to find the traits traditionally associated with the animals, which they will add to their list. Then, they will come up with a number of ways to compare and contrast the animals in the list. In the third lesson, they will focus upon the animal associated with the year of their birth, learning about its traits and discussing whether or not these apply to themselves and their peers. Finally, each student will make an acrostic, combining the letters of his or her first name with adjectives that relate to his or her zodiac sign.

Guiding Questions

How does the Chinese calendar work?

What are the 12 animals of the zodiac and how were they chosen? What traits are associated with them? How are the animals used as symbols?

What is your animal sign, and what traits does it represent?

Learning Objectives

Understand that the Chinese calendar is divided into cycles of 12-years, in which each year is represented by an animal

Be familiar with the story explaining the choice of the 12 zodiac animals and understand that each animal of the calendar symbolizes certain character traits

Know that the Chinese associate the traits of each zodiac animal with people born in that year and know their own signs within the Chinese zodiac