You’ve probably heard of the 12 Chinese zodiac animal signs—rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig—which repeat on a 12-year cycle. But did you know there’s a corresponding element that can give us even more information about the year and ourselves? For example, 2020 isn’t just the Year of the Rat, it’s the year of the metal rat! So, what does it mean that 1989 was the year of the earth snake? Or that 2002 was the year of the fire horse? Let’s take a deep dive into the theories behind the elements, what each of the elements means and how you can discover which one you are!
What’s the origin of the Chinese zodiac elements?
There are five elements of the Chinese zodiac: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These are derived from the Five Elements Theory—or Wu Xing—a philosophy used to describe the relationship and interdependence between all things. This teaching is all about finding balance and embracing the process. As one energy waxes, another wanes. All elements are interconnected and there is no hierarchy. This theory forms the basis of not only the Chinese zodiac but of other Eastern traditions like feng shui, holistic medicine, acupuncture, divination (such as the I Ching) and martial arts.
In Tropical Western astrology, there is a similar concept of four elements––earth, air, fire and water––originally described by Plato in Timaeus. These ideas around the elements and how they relate is the root of why we call fire signs feisty and water signs sensitive. Without one element (or type), the other element doesn’t exist. None are better or worse than the other and all play off of each other. Ultimately, the goal is harmony. All of the astrological archetypes that have now become memes originated here.
In the Five Elements theory, it is the interaction between the elements that both creates and destroys energy. When the elements interact, like the opposing sides of a yin yang symbol, progress (whether positive or negative) is inevitable.
The cycle of the Five Elements goes in a specific order and can be remembered through noting the different processes of creation and destruction through them. The creating (generative) interactions are:
- Wood starts a Fire
- Fire creates Earth
- Earth holds Metal
- Metal carries Water
- Water feeds Wood
The destruction (overcoming) interactions are:
- Fire melts Metal
- Metal chops Wood
- Wood separates the Earth
- Earth absorbs Water
- Water puts out Fire
In the Five Elements Theory, creation and destruction are complementary processes in which the ultimate goal is harmony.
What do the Chinese zodiac elements mean?
Because all of the elements work together, they each have different priorities and people born under certain element types have distinct personality traits. A successful team needs all of the pieces of the puzzle: the visionary wood person, the adventurous fire person, the peacekeeping earth person, the strict metal person and the artistic water person.
Remember that each element is only one part of the puzzle (which also includes the zodiac sign for each year). Some elements resonate more with particular zodiac sign—like wood with rabbit and rooster with metal. Let’s get into the details of each so you can identify which one you are. Remember to keep your Chinese zodiac sign in mind as well (you can find a quick guide to that here) as that adds yet another layer to understanding how the element works for you.
1. Wood: Grounded Visionaries
People born during wood years are patient, compassionate and understanding. Like the extensive roots of a mighty, ancient tree, these people are wise beyond their years. Always growing. Wood people are as warm and sociable as they are stable and practical. Trees send messages to each other through their underground network of roots and likewise for wood people, communication and growth go hand in hand.
Because they are so focused on expansion and opportunity though, wood types can become overly competitive or obsessed with achievement for achievement’s sake. When too focused on winning, they can become intrusive and disrespect others’ boundaries. Their vision is strong, but it shouldn’t get in the way of other people’s progress!
Wood people are excellent planners and decision makers and are often associated with extremely wise creatures like owls. To combat their occasional tendency to work themselves into the ground or overindulge, they should engage in regular exercise (something slow and muscle-building like yoga or Pilates) and get plenty of rest.
Zodiac sign: Tiger, rabbit
If the last number in your birth year is 4 or 5 then your element is wood.
Recent Wood Years: 1974, 1975, 1984, 1985, 1994, 1995, 2004, 2005, 2014, 2015
2. Fire: Thrill Chasers
Those born during fire years can’t help but chase an adventure. Creative and persistent, these people are just deeply passionate about life. Fire people are extremely motivated, and once their spark is ignited, they won’t stop until they’ve lit up the whole village…or, alternately, until they’ve burned the village down. Fire types want to take anyone and everyone along for the ride. And unless you want to be swallowed by the flame, there’s absolutely no getting in their way!
Because they run on passion, fire people are thrill seekers who bore easily if what they’re doing becomes too repetitive or mundane. They don’t do well in work environments where every day is the same and can be a bit flighty. Freelance is definitely better for them than working at the same company forever. Fire types will leave a job or a relationship at the drop of the hat if something more exciting gets their attention. Spontaneity is their love language.
Because they need constant stimulation, fire people can suffer from anxiety and insomnia if they’re not careful about regulating their nervous system. Fire people run hot. To cool down, they should take in the scenery on long walks and be super vigilant about staying hydrated!
Zodiac sign: Horse, snake
If the last number in your birth year is 6 or 7 then your element is fire.
Recent Fire Years: 1976, 1977, 1986, 1987, 1996, 1997, 2006, 2007, 2016, 2017
3. Earth: Contemplative Mediators
Those born during earth years are natural peacekeepers. Responsible and justice-oriented, these people are the peer mediators on the college campus and the nerds in high school who always make sure the group project is handed in on time. Earth types are who Mr. Rogers was talking about when he said, “Look for the helpers,” and they are best at helping their friends, family and anyone who truly values them. Earth people remain calm even when they are in the eye of the storm.
Though they are expert problem solvers and crisis managers, earth types can sometimes go too far with their power and become a bit self-centered and controlling. These people move a mountain to help you, but they’re not happy if no one gives them credit for it. A simple “thanks” is not enough for earth types.
To (perhaps ironically) keep themselves grounded in their business—rather than just living to help everyone else—earth people should make time for meditation and stillness. Yes, there’s always something to fix but it doesn’t always need to be fixed immediately. Clarity comes with patience.
Season: Between summer and autumn
Climate: Rainy and wet
Zodiac sign: Dragon, dog, ox, sheep
If the last number in your birth year is 8 or 9, then your element is earth.
Recent Earth Years: 1978, 1979, 1988, 1989, 1998, 1999, 2008, 2009, 2018, 2019
4. Metal: Driven Ice Queens
Love them or hate them, people born during metal years always get the job done. These people are unyielding and rigid, often giving off major Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada vibes. Metal people are regimented minimalists who are on the offensive. For them, satisfaction comes with finding the simplest path to a job well done. They’re also extremely loyal and ferociously protective of their loved ones.
Metal types are disciplined and have high moral standards and though that’s something to be respected, they also can be judgmental and controlling. Sharp as knives, when metal people are mad, their words can cut. It’s imperative that they learn to lighten up a bit and realize that rules and structure are important, but they aren’t everything.
Metal people can tap into their softer, more compassionate side though volunteer work in their local community. It’s good for them to experience things that grow outwards rather than just upward. They’re humbled through being a part of something larger than themselves that still has a tangible impact. Because they have trouble letting go—even after a deep betrayal by a loved one—they should practice deep breathing and meditation to find their inner calm.
Zodiac Sign: Monkey, rooster
If the last number in your birth year is 0 or 1 then your element is metal.
Recent Metal Years: 1970, 1971, 1980, 1981, 1990, 1991, 2000, 2001, 2010, 2011, 2020
5. Water: Introspective Artists
People born during water years are sensitive and introverted, typically needing lots of time for self-reflection. With their thoughts always spinning—and heads sometimes in the clouds—they like to stay away from drama and observe from the sidelines. Water people will step into stressful situations only when they know their voice needs to be heard. Water types love their own company and their happy place is spending a rainy day inside, reading and journaling. Water types are filled to the brim with creativity and inspiration. They’re sympathetic perfectionists who love to coordinate activities that make everyone happy.
Empathetic to a fault, water types can sometimes let their loved ones take over their lives and can lose themselves in others’ stories. On the flip side, they can also isolate to protect themselves and become passive or self-indulgent. Because water people keep so much inside, when they do let it all out, it’s overwhelming for their family and friends.
To find balance, people born during water years need a calm environment. They also should push themselves to get out of the house and socialize because even though they can always entertain themselves, they’re fueled by being around others. No matter what, water types are generally fearless and have strong willpower. Don’t underestimate them just because they’re sensitive!
Zodiac Sign: Rat, pig
If the last number in your birth year is 2 or 3 then your element is Water.
Recent Water Years: 1972, 1973, 1982, 1983, 1992, 1993, 2002, 2003, 2012, 2013
What does it mean that 2021 is the Year of the Metal Ox?
The Year of the Ox is about endurance. It’s no longer just about survival (see: 2020's Year of the Rat), but this year is about putting stakes in the ground to steady our feet and stabilize what has probably felt like very shaky ground.
Associated with Yin (feminine, receptive) energy, in the Ox year, things like duty and responsibility might feel extra heavy. Even things we once considered easy might take a bit more push and pull to get off the ground. The Ox's strength is undeniable, but we can't go full mast at every opportunity. We must choose are battles wisely.
And because the Chinese Zodiac also cycles through five elemental types, it's not only the Year of the Ox, but it's the year of the Metal Ox. It's the second metal year in a row, which means this element will continue to highlight our steadfastness and grit. Overall, this is a year for recovering, thinking long-term, building a family, and most of all, discipline.
Those born during a metal year have been literally in their element for the past year—so here’s looking at you, those born in 1970, 1971, 1980, 1981, 1990 and 1991! Metal types are minimalists at heart and are better than most at relying only on the given resources. Metal people are survivors and can solve any problem with only what’s on hand. If some of us, particularly the more patient, understanding and go-with-the-flow wood and water types, are struggling with the rules and structures of what’s happened and what’s ahead, it’s time to get into a routine! In uncertain times, it’s structure that keeps us fulfilled and focused. So, let’s follow the lead of the strategic—and sometimes bossy—metal people in our lives.