Chinese Church Voices

Chinese Christians and the Chinese Zodiac

Idolatry or a Cultural Artifact?

Chinese Church Voices is an occasional column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


In my new book, As Promised,1 I explore the influence of two types of feasts and festivals on Chinese Christians: church feasts that mold our heavenly identity and traditional Chinese festivals that sculpt our earthly identity. As Chinese New Year approaches, let’s delve into how we, as Christians as well as Chinese, should perceive the Chinese zodiac (生肖) through a biblical lens.

Living in Both Worlds

For Chinese Christians, embracing both church feasts and traditional Chinese festivals is a delicate balance. While adhering to biblical principles and avoiding idolatry, we are also called to live in harmony with all, showcasing God’s goodness to unbelievers (Romans 12:18).

The Origin of the Chinese Zodiac

The Chinese zodiac’s origin is debated. Some people believe that the Chinese zodiac originated from animal worship in primitive times, and that the twelve Chinese zodiac signs corresponded to the twelve gods and beasts, which were used to drive away the plague ghosts.

Others believe that the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac are linked to the Chinese sexagenary cycle (干支紀年), and that the twelve animals correspond to the twelve Earthly Branches (地支), with the animals serving as symbols of the Earthly Branches.

People use twelve animals, namely rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, to mark the year of birth. For example, if a person was born in the year of 子 (), he or she belongs to rat; if he or she was born in the year of the 丑 (chǒu), this person belongs to ox, and so on.

This way, in ancient China, commoners could easily remember the year of their birth. This simple animal chronology was later called 生肖年 (year of the Chinese zodiac,) as the word for word translation of生肖 is 生: “born” and 肖: “similar” or “resemblance.”

Regardless, literature suggests that the Chinese zodiac indeed originated in China and is the crystallization of the animal worship, totem worship, and early astronomy of the Chinese ancestors. Personally, I think this conclusion is quite reasonable.

However, it also confirms the concern of many Christians, that Chinese zodiac attributes originated from idolatry. Should it then be completely rejected? If we don’t due to respect for our tradition, wouldn’t we become idolaters?

Understanding Idolatry

The Bible unequivocally declares the existence of the one true God, the creator of the heavens, the earth, and all that dwells within, encompassing both humans and animals. Through Christ Jesus, he has redeemed us sinners from the grip of sin and death, transforming us into his children and bestowing upon us eternal life.

Acknowledging God as the creator of all things and the origin of life, we, as beings created by him, recognize his role as the sustainer of life.

As redeemed individuals, we understand that God is our exclusive reliance and the sole source of our salvation.

Our ability to discern what constitutes an idol is rooted in our foundation of faith in the one true God. The uniqueness of God inherently dismisses the legitimacy of other idols, as emphasized in the first commandment of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). For God’s people, this commandment stands not only as the primary directive but also as the fundamental and crucial identification of our existence—we exist because of the one true God.

God, as both creator and redeemer, serves as the ultimate source, reliance, and hope of our lives. Anything treated as an alternative source, reliance, or hope, apart from God, is considered a false god or an idol. Determining their idolatrous nature involves referring to the Bible, which explicitly states that idols are “made with human hands; they have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, noses but cannot smell, hands but cannot touch, feet but cannot walk, and throats but cannot make a sound” (Psalm 115:4–7). In essence, idols are lifeless, incapable of granting life, let alone redemption. In stark contrast, the true God is life itself—the creator, sustainer, and redeemer who continually renews life.

The consequences of idolatry are profound, with one set in motion by the natural laws of the universe and the other resulting from God’s actions within his covenant relationship. The former aligns with the words of the Psalmist: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8). Without God as the source of living water, our lives are destined to wither. G.K. Beale, a renowned New Testament scholar at Westminster Theological Seminary, emphasized this concept in his book, We Become What We Worship. A parallel can be drawn from an old Chinese saying: “The one who is near to vermilion is red, and the one who is near to ink is black. (近朱者赤,近墨者黑。)”

On the contrary, the latter scenario mirrors the prophets of Israel, who admonished the people for abandoning the God of Israel. In response, God disciplined them through war, famine, and pestilence. Throughout the Bible, God consistently and sternly warns his people to turn away from all forms of idolatry (Exodus 20:4; 1 Corinthians 11:14).

In ancient times, idolatry was overt and conspicuous, with sacrifices serving as its direct manifestation. However, in the twenty-first century, modern individuals find the notion of sacrificing to a deity evidently impractical and unintelligent. Contemporary society exhibits skepticism towards the spiritual realm, questioning the genuine impact of religious rituals. Despite this, it’s crucial to recognize that modern people are not devoid of idols; rather, these idols are subtly concealed within the modern mindset.

The Heidelberg Catechism holds a significant place among the confessions of faith in Christian history, serving as a classic interpretation of the Reformed faith. When addressing the first commandment of the Ten Commandments, it defines idolatry as placing trust in something other than the one true God revealed in the Bible. This doesn’t imply forsaking God outright but involves simultaneously placing trust in something considered equal to God. In contemporary Christianity, these substitutes may encompass aspects like money, love, fame, success, or even the act of church service itself.

Is the Acceptance of the Chinese Zodiac Idolatry?

We know the origin of the Chinese zodiac and where it came from, and we understand what the Bible says about idolatry. Going back to our original question, can calling a year by its sign, or accepting its attributes be condemned as idolatry? My answer is that it depends.

If you just treat the Chinese zodiac as a symbol, without giving it any special connotations, without involving the horoscope, luck, feng shui, taboos, or any other attributes associated with it, then there is no problem in my humble opinion. While the origin of the Chinese zodiac may be idolatrous, in its long evolution it has simply become a cultural custom, and no longer has the connotation of idolatry, and so should not be treated as idolatry.

Otherwise, Chinese Christians would not be able to celebrate any festivals or participate in any customs. Take the Spring Festival as an example: Chinese New Year has to do with idolatry, putting up spring couplets has to do with idolatry, setting off firecrackers has to do with idolatry, and even eating dumplings has to do with idolatry.

Moreover, Christmas would not be celebrated because it was originally a pagan festival, probably a decision made by the early church to convert the pagan customs of the time. Worse yet, following this logic, Christians in the English-speaking world would be strongly advised not to use names like Monday, Tuesday, Sunday, which are named after ancient pagan gods. Monday is the goddess of the moon; Tuesday is the god of war; Sunday is the god of the sun.

Arguing that Christians must reject anything with idolatrous origins doesn’t work and leads Christians to essentially reject their original cultural traditions altogether and create a set of their own. We are called to renew the cultural traditions we are part of rather than to create a whole new set, though this is, admittedly, sometimes necessary.

However, if you accept the idea behind the Chinese zodiac that the year of the Chinese zodiac will affect your work and life in a particular year, and that the astrological signs will affect your temperament and your luck, then the Chinese zodiac becomes your inner trust, your dependence, and your hope—this is idolatry, and it needs to be rejected. We know that our days are in the hands of the God who created us and loves us in Christ, and not determined by the time of our birth. Apart from God, all people live under the shadow and curse of sin, so there is no such thing as a good day, whereas by God’s grace, even the days that seem hard and dark to man can be full of joy and peace.

In addition, we know from the revelation of the Bible that time is created by God and has a beginning and an end. Time is more like a shooting line, moving towards a goal set by God, rather than a circle, which goes round and round. Therefore, the traditional Chinese view of time behind the sexagenary cycle (i.e., Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches chronology)—which views history as a sixty-year cycle—is not biblical and should be rejected.

What Can Christians Do?

In the second scenario, it’s clearly idolatry, echoing Paul’s guidance to the Corinthians to “flee from all idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

In the first case, acknowledging that the Chinese zodiac isn’t inherently idolatrous, we should heed Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “All things are lawful, but not all are helpful; all things are lawful, but not all build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23). What we need now is a mix of wisdom and love. It’s not just about what’s right or wrong but also about whether it might stumble fellow Christians. If I’m more open-minded, viewing the zodiac as a mere symbol, am I willing to limit my freedom for others’ consciences, especially those who might find it problematic? On the flip side, if I’m conservative, deeming the zodiac wrong, can I accept more liberal perspectives in Christ without hastily criticizing and judging?

As Christians, our identity is in Jesus, not the zodiac.

Regardless of being conservative or liberal, our allegiance isn’t to any creation, even the zodiac; it’s to Jesus alone. Our identity is wrapped up in Jesus, who sacrificed himself on the cross and rose on the third day. The old self is crucified with him, and now, it’s not I who live, but Christ living in me!

Whether we’re labeled as rat, ox, tiger, or rabbit, it’s secondary. What matters is that we belong to Jesus—a precious identity bestowed by God through Christ. This is what we ought to instill in ourselves and our children.

I’d love to share a short story about my daughter when she was around two years old.

My wife and I aren’t really into Chinese zodiac signs (just a personal preference), and we didn’t want our daughter to be labeled as a tiger. One day, someone asked her, “What [animal year] do you belong to? (你属什么的?),” and she was confused. In tears, she ran to her mom for the answer. Her mom comforted her, saying, “If anyone asks, tell them you belong to Jesus.” From that day on, whenever she was asked, she confidently and proudly declared, “I belong to Jesus!”

We vividly recall the first time she answered someone with “I belong to Jesus.” It was a special moment, a revelation for us—a reminder from God. We were amazed and delighted that a child could boldly declare her belonging to Jesus when guided by her parents. Those who asked were often confused, thinking they misheard. They’d turn to us and ask, “What did she say?” That’s when we would start sharing about Jesus.

Perhaps, the Chinese zodiac question could serve as a valuable opportunity for us to share our faith with unbelieving family members and friends, emphasizing that I belong to Jesus, and he loves me, having given himself for me!

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in Chinese and was translated by the ChinaSource Team.

Endnotes

  1. As Promised is in the process of being published by ReFrame Ministries. Keep an eye on their Chinese-language publications to get a copy soon.
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Image credit: Header, Christopher Gerry and Charlie Harris via UnSplash; Zodiac image, Jakub Hałun, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Poster, “Jesus amid Children,” via Chinese Christian Posters, original in the .

Jeshurun

Pastor Jeshurun (pseudonym) holds a master of divinity and a master of theology from Calvin Theological Seminary, specializing in the New Testament. He currently serves in Beijing.View Full Bio


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