Welcome to the David Victor Vector Blog

Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Year of the Black Water Snake: Some Background

Sunday, February 10, 2013 begins the Year of the Snake. It is the beginning of the year 4710 (in some traditions, 4711) in the Asian lunar system, which is the Year of the Black Water Snake.   

In today’s posting, I would like to share with you some specifics about the Year of the Snake as well as some background to the Asian Zodiac system as a whole.

That said, you may also be interested in reading three related posts on

1)  Lunar New Year Customs: Year of the Snake around the world at

2)  Year of the Snake: Business Impact  at http://davidvictorvector.blogspot.com/2013/01/year-of-snake-business-impact_22.html

3) List of 88 Year of the Snake Festivals from 21 countries outside East Asia at

In today’s posting, though, we look only at the background to the Year of the Snake specifically and the Asian Zodiac system as a whole.

The Asian Zodiac Briefly Explained

The Asian Zodiac (or horoscope) associated with the Asian or Chinese New Year is taken very seriously by those who follow it in their tradition. The significance attributed to the combinations associated with the Asian horoscope affect business decisions, dates selected for important events such as weddings, and many other aspects of daily life. These views are widely shared, with a larger following than any single religion -- Western or Eastern. As a result, these beliefs should be treated with the respect accorded a religious belief (rather than with that of superstition as Western astrology is sometimes treated).

The Lunar Calendar

Because the Asian lunar calendar follows the moon, it seems to move within our solar-based Gregorian calendar. Moreover, the Gregorian calendar does not correspond fully with the Asian lunar calendar. Thus, February 10  marks the beginning of the Asian lunar calendar only this year (for instance, it began last year on January 23, 2012 with the last day of that year -- Year of the Dragon -- falling on February 9, 2013).

The Twelve Animals of the Zodiac

The lunar calendar runs on a cycle of 12 years each represented by an animal.  The animals all have a balance of compatability or incompatability as represented in their place in the circle of the 12-year cycle. This year is the Year of the Snake.
The 12 Animals of the Zodiac

The 12 animals in their order are

  1. Rat
  2. Ox
  3. Tiger
  4. Rabbit
  5. Dragon
  6. Snake
  7. Horse
  8. Sheep
  9. Monkey
  10. Rooster
  11. Dog
  12. Pig

Each animal corresponds to a month of the lunar year. The dragon corresponds to the fifth animal in the cycle.

 Snake, Zhou Dynasty, 11-10 Century BCE, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The Five Elements of the Wu Xing Cycle
Additionally, each 12-year cycle of animals runs on an additional cycle corresponding to the Wu Xing cycle of the five traditional Chinese elements. These are
  1. metal
  2. fire
  3. wood
  4. water
  5. earth
  6. Wu Xing Cycle

The five elements are in balance with each other, the basis of much of feng shui.

Each element is also associated with a color. In the case of water, that color is black (or in some instances blue).

Combined, each element combines with each animal over a period of 60 years.  The current 12-year cycle combines with the element of Water. Thus, this year is the Year of the Black Water Snake.  

Snake, Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), Shanghai Museum

Spiritual Importance of the Asian Horoscope

Many followers of the Asian zodiac have a formal religious belief in the importance of the animal element combinations associated with each year in the 60-year cycle. This is clearly the case for those practicing Taoism.

For Taoists, the New Year is always of religious significance. This because in Taoism, the Lunar New Year's first day is a time when lesser deities or spirits are believed to ascend to the throne of the Jade Emperor (King of Heaven).  In Taoist tradition, the 12 animals were in a contest to greet the Jade Emperor; a 13th animal – the cat – was tricked by the rat (about five variations of how exist), which explains why cats have hated rats ever since.  A children's version of this story is told in an very pleasant rendition at the Topmarks education site. I encourage you to take a look at this version at http://www.topmarks.co.uk/ChineseNewYear/ZodiacStory.aspx

The 12 Zodiac animals
in their race

The New Year is a religious event as well for a great number of the sects of Buddhism, and most famously for Tibetan Buddhists. In Buddhist tradition, the 12 animals were in a race to do honor to Lord Buddha on the eve of his death.  The rat and cat story is part of this tradition, too.  Incidentally, the rat was the first animal to greet Buddha.  He did so by helping the ox (which had poor eyesight) find his way across a stream by riding on his head.  When the two reach Lord Buddha on the other shore, the rat jumped off the ox’s head, reaching Lord Buddha first.  
Additionally, though Confucianism is not technically a religion (but rather a philosophical system) its followers also traditional observe the lunar New Year to show reverence to their ancestors.  Because of this, even Christians in countries such as Korea or Vietnam generally celebrate the holiday. The same holds true for those people in cultures with strong Confucian customs who have no religion at all or for those with mixed traditions.

Personality Traits and Asian Astrological Year

Detail from Snake with Skink (1877) by Kitagawa Utamaro 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Many people attribute a great deal of significance to the personality traits attributed to the animal associated with the year in which they are born.  Each animal has its own traits, and then each animal and element combination has their own subtraits. These are explained later in the blog.

The Year of the Snake is associated with good luck in general, and especially in issues of material wealth. For those who believe in the tradition, as with all Asian Horoscope years, those born in a previous Year of the Snake (e.g., 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989 or 2001) will find this year an especially auspicious year.

It is important to note that the animal of one’s birth year is not seen as fully able to stand on its own in understanding an individual’s personality traits and tendencies. These at a minimum must, as we have discussed, take into account the associated five elements. Additionally, East Asian astrologers account for the inner or secret animal assigned by the day of the month and hour of the day on which one is born.  In all, there are 8640 combinations (e.g., 12 months, 5 elements, 12 months, 12 times of day).

Snake by Ai Weiwei
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC

Chinese Astrology Not A Particular Accurate Term

The system discussed here is often called Chinese astrology. This is a misnomer for two reasons.  First, the holiday is far more widely observed than in just China, especially in Korea, Singapore, Bhutan, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia and Vietnam as well as those from these backgrounds living in other countries.

I have described the holiday in general in this post. In a future post, I will discuss followed the culturally specific differences in customs at the close of this summary.

East Asian lunar zodiac
That said, for all the culturally diverse places in which the Asian New Year is celebrated, the calendar on which it is based does have its origins in China. The first written records of the calendar and the celebration of the New Year date to China’s Shang Dynasty (1766-1050 BC), although traditionally it is believed to date back to the rule of the semi-mythical Yellow Emperor Huang Di around 2600 BC.

A second reason the phrase Chinese astrology is a misnomer is that the system really has nothing to do with constellations as astrology does in the West. It is less a reading of the stars than an interpretation of the importance of the time, date and year in which one is born.  To the extent that when one is born matters to Western-style astrology, there is a correspondence. Moreover, there is another similarity as  the five elements in the system, in fact, do correspond with the five planets known in ancient China.

Because of these corresponding commonalities with Western astrology, people call the Asian system’s combinations of animals and elements the lunar or Chinese “horoscope”.  This is a bit of a misnomer, however, not only for the reasons just described but because the way in which people view the two “horoscopes” is very different.  

The difference is that many people in Europe, Australia and the Americas consider the Western zodiac horoscope of star signs (Scorpio, Sagittarius, etc.) to be a form of superstition, a game or something believed only partially. 

This is NOT the case with the Asian lunar horoscope cycle, where people follow their sign very seriously. As a result, the system, though it transcends that of any specific religion, should be treated with the respect accorded religious beliefs. In any case, the point here is that in a cross-cultural and inter-religious sense, the issue of lunar horoscope animal element signs should be treated with respect.

As one of many examples, it might be worth looking at an article last year that was widely distributed by the Associated Press. This was a report out of Seoul entitled “Year of Dragon could be China's time to lead Asia.” The article’s opening sentence reads:
This is the Year of the Dragon in China, one for bold decision-making and strong leadership, and one that may see the country emerge as the political power of Asian football. http://news.yahoo.com/dragon-could-chinas-time-lead-asia-020101296--spt.html  
The point of view of this article is significant, not because it tells us something about Chinese leadership in the world of football, but because those who take the Asian calendar seriously would consider this a newsworthy factor. Here the contrast to Western astrology is notable. Very few would cite the Western horoscope in such a fashion, let alone in an article widely distributed by the AP.

Shinzo Abe  
Nor was this an isolated oddity. For example, in a press conference on January 6, 2013, Japan's new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said:

We want a rocketlike start toward economic recovery...The Year of the Snake symbolizes prosperous business. This administration will unite to boost the economy. http://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Asia/Story/A1Story20130106-393648.html
In a similar light, several business articles (both inside and outside of Asia) referred to Year of the Snake when making predictions on nations in East Asia. For just one example, an article on the Chinese economy in Bloomberg Business Week began,
Incoming President Xi Jinping may find China’s investment-driven economic recovery in the Year of the Snake jeopardized by mounting risks in the finance industry. http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-01-02/china-poised-for-2013-rebound-as-debt-risks-rise-for-xi
The point of all of this is to emphasize that the importance of the lunar calendar and its animal cycle should be taken seriously.

Year of the Snake

 East Asia has no tradition
of the Serpent
as in this detail from
Lucas Cranach's
Adam and Eve (1526)

Courtauld Institute of Art, London
People born in the Year of the Snake have specific characteristics associated with them, a great many of which are considered very positive, such as gracefulness, intelligence and the ability (and drive) to attain material possessions.

In the East Asian tradition, the snake is generally a positive, second only to its close kin the dragon as a the symbol of good luck and material wealth.  In East Asia, no tradition of the snake as evil exists. There is no association of the snake or serpent with the banishment from the  Garden of Eden tradition of the Western religions.
Unlike the Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition of evil serpents tempting Eve into sin, Asian religions -- most notably Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism and Buddhism -- view snakes as one of protection.

 Vishnu sheltered by the snake Adishesha
Parsurameswar Temple
Bhupaneswar, Orissa, India
In Hinduism, snakes -- especially cobras -- are associated with several dieties. Vishnu is often sheltered by the five-headed cobra Adishesha. Similarly, Ganesha is often shown with a snake encircling is stomach. Likewise Shiva is often depicted with a cobra wrapped around his neck as he dances. The Hindu festival of Nag Panchami venerates lives snakes or images of them.

 Cobra shading Parsvanatha
India, 12th Century
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
In Jainism too, snakes hold a protective role. The 8th century Parsvanatha -- Jainism's 23rd Jina -- is usually shown with a seven-hooded cobra shading his head.

Since the Asian Lunar Calendar deals primarily with Taoist and Buddhist roots, though, it is the view of these two faiths toward snakes that carries the most importance here, and in both Taoism and Buddhism snakes are also viewed favorably.
Jade Emperor
Jade Emperor Temple
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
In the Taoist tradition, the Jade Emperor gave the snake the second place of honor, behind only the dragon, that most-favored of all the 12 animals. Originally, the snake was not favored at all by the Jade Emperor. The snake was angry and began biting people and other animals. Man-Ho Kwok in his book on Chinese Astrology (listed in the bibliography below) relates the rest of this Taoist tale regarding the snake and the Jade Emperor as follows:

Although the snake was summoned before the Jade Emperor and asked to stop [his angry ways], he was an obstinate animal and he continued. As a punishment, his four legs were taken from him... Ashamed by his past behaviour, the snaked turned his efforts towards helping the people in an attempt to redeem himself. He helped his relative, the dragon, to control the rains and he donated his body to be used as medicine after his death. Impressed, the Emperor gave the snake a place just after the dragon in the animal signs. (Kwok, p. 22)

Buddha on coiled naga snake
Wat Chedi Jet Thaew, Thailand

The view of snakes is likewise positive in Buddhism. It was a great cobra, for instance, that protected the Buddha under the mucalinda tree during the sixth week after his enlightenment. As recounted by the Buddha Dharma Association's "Life of the Buddha" on Buddha.net, the story goes:

The Buddha then went and meditated at the foot of a mucalinda tree. It began to rain heavily and a huge king cobra came out and coiled his body seven times around the Buddha to keep him warm and placed his hood over the Buddha’s head to protect him from the rain. After seven days the rain stopped and the snake changed into a young man who paid his respects to the Buddha.  http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/lifebuddha/17lbud.htm

Indeed, one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Buddhism is the site of the Buddha's enlightenment at Bhodghaya in India's Bihar state. There in Muchalinda Lake is a statue of the cobra Muchalinda shading the Buddha at what believers hold to be the exact spot where the event took place.
 Muchalinda shading the Buddha 
Muchalinda Lake, Bhodghaya, Bihar
Guardian naga
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Because of this relationship with the Buddha at Bhodghaya, snakes frequently depicted as protecting entities in Buddhist Temples. This is particularly the case in the Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma.  In these traditions, the snakes are known as the temple guardian nagas. Nagas, for example, are a common feature of the famous temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. 

All of this is to explain that in the Asian tradition, snakes are viewed quite differently than they are customarily seen in Europe, Australia and the Americas. While snakes are respected and treated with caution, they have on the whole a postive image in much of Asia. 

Personality Traits Associated with Year of the Snake
It is important, again, to emphasize that for many people, the traits described here are taken very seriously and, by many others, at least somewhat seriously. The descriptions that follow are general traits. Professional astrologers in East Asia bore down through the specific year in the 60-year cycle (the element), the specific day and the specific hour of birth. As mentioned above, this produces 8640 possible permutations. The characteristics of any given year's zodiac animal, therefore, is considered by believers to be a very general influence.

Positive Snake Traits

Snake netsuke
Japan, 19th Century
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Those born in the Year of the Snake are – on the positive side -- considered to be naturally graceful, quick-witted and particularly good at acquiring material possessions. People born under the sign of the snake are extreme sophisticates. As the Chinesezodiac.org site puts it,

They are physically striking and often have a wonderful sense of personal style. They are independent and rather private people who follow their own path, no matter what others think. http://www.chinesezodiac.org/snake
Snake people are thought to be at once the most enigmatic as well as the most intellectual of the signs. As one online site explains:

Snake is the wisest, deepest thinker, most enchanting and biggest enigma of the Chinese cycle. Snake people are endowed with deep philosophical understanding. They are born thinkers who excel in finding solutions to complex problems. They make deals and do the killing when they judge the moment is right. Depth and charisma make the Snake a formidable presence. What you see is not what you get. http://chinesehoroscop-e.com/Snake%20Zodiac.html

In contrast to the Western folk views of snakes, the East Asian zodiacal version of the snake is something akin to a mix of the Western folklore regarding the owl and fox: wisdom and slyness.

Buddha with snakes, Mandalay, Myanmar
Negative Traits
On the negative side, people born in the Year of the Snake are believed to be loners to a fault. As the Suite 101 article "Chinese Zodiac Signs" explains:

Snakes, being loners, usually rely on themselves to get ahead in life. They tend to mistrust the thoughts and opinions of others on important matters. Snakes tend to make decisions based on their own deeply held feelings and intuition, rather than on facts. http://suite101.com/article/chinese-zodiac-signs-year-of-the-snake-a343471
People born in the Year of the Snake, in the view of believers, are the most complex of all the zodiacal signs. This is illustrated in a complex mix of stinginess tied up with an overly generous trait for those they do help. This, in turn, leads to a negative possessiveness to those of whom they choose to take care. As one Chinese Astrology site puts it:
Snakes are a bit tight when it comes to lending money, though his sympathy for others often leads him to offer help. The fatal flaw in his character is, in fact, a tendency to exaggerate – in helping friends as with everything else. If he does somebody a favor, he becomes possessive towards them in an odd way. http://www.chinesezodiac.org/snake
Paiwan wooden snake
Late 19th Century Taiwan
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Finally, people born in the Year of the Snake are viewed as complex in terms of love relationships as well. As Man-Ho Kwok (see bibliography) writes, people born in the Year of the Snake:
have a very seductive nature, and when you have resolved to woo someone, you plan your moves carefully and do not abandon your quest lightly. You are a humorous and romantic partner who jealously guards important relationships; even if you wander off to flirt with others, you are determined not to lose what you already have.    p. 23.

As for the year governed by the snake, the complicated characteristics that govern the people also, for believers, will govern the year. Things as they appear on the surface, believers hold, are not what actually are likely to be in reality. As a result, years governed by the snake are years for thinking carefully before acting.

Black Water Dragon

This year, 2012, as noted before, is the Year of the Black Water Year. 

Because snakes are the sign of intellect and water is the element most associated with education, the Water Snake Years are supposed to be exceptional years for research, scientific breakthroughs and learning in general. 

 As the popular site Chinese Astrology.com puts it:
This is a good time for me to say this is a Water year. And that’s the element most closely associated with education and research. So Water reinforces the Snake’s influence in this area, making 2013 a very special year for scientists and scholars. http://www.onlinechineseastrology.com/horoscopes/horoscope-2013-Year-Of-The-Snake.aspx

The professional astrologist Paul Ng takes this further, balancing the year within the 60-year cycle. Ng explains that this is the Mountain-Wind Urn year in that cycle, with an uneven balance of yin and yang (2 yang influences as against 4 yin ones). He suggests:
While the outside seems to be solid, the inside is empty. Hence it is a year of conservation, a year of rebuilding and a year of changes. http://www.paulng.com/CMS/uploads/2013-geo.pdf
Please read about the other posts on the blog on Asian New Year traditions from country to country at


Happy Year of the Snake!

Want to Learn More

Chinese Horoscop-e.com, "Snake"  http://chinesehoroscop-e.com/Snake%20Zodiac.html

Chinese Zodiac.org, "Year of the Snake" http://www.chinesezodiac.org/snake

Man-ho Kwok, Chinese Astrology: Forecast Your Future from Your Chinese Horoscope, Tuttle Publishing, 1997.

Theodora Lau, The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes (6th edition), Collins Reference, 2007.

Kah Joon Liow, "12 Chinese Zodiac Sign," Living Chinese Symbols http://www.living-chinese-symbols.com/12-chinese-zodiac-sign.html

Paul Ng, "Predictions for 2013 (Year of the Water Snake)" http://www.paulng.com/CMS/uploads/2013-geo.pdf
Online Chinese Astrology http://www.onlinechineseastrology.com/

Neil Somerville, Your Chinese Horoscope 2013, Harper Collins, 2012.

Topmarks Education, "Zodiac Story, Chinese New Year."  http://www.topmarks.co.uk/ChineseNewYear/ZodiacStory.aspx

David Twicken, Five Element Chinese Astrology Made Easy, iUniverse, 2000.

Suzanne White, The New Chinese Astrology, Thomas Dunne Books, 2009.

Shelly Wu, Chinese Astrology: Exploring the Eastern Zodiac, New Page Books, 2005.

Derek Walters, The Complete Guide to Chinese Astrology, Watkins Publishing, 2005.
Ho-Peng Yoke, Chinese Mathematical Astrology: Reaching Out to the Stars, Routledge, 2003. This is the pre-eminent book on the mathematical science of Asian lunar horoscope calculations. It is downloadable at http://www.ebook3000.com/Chinese-Mathematical-Astrology--Reaching-out-for-the-stars--Needham-Research-Institute-Series-_130932.html

Xiaosui Zhao and Graeme Mills, "Chinese Zodiac -- Year of the Snake" http://kaixin.com.au/chinese-zodiac/2010/10/18/chinese-zodiac-year-of-the-snake-she.html

Clip Art Sources:

Wu Xing Cycle: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f0/Wuxing_en.svg/220px-Wuxing_en.svg.png

Yin Yang animation: http://www.eharrishome.com/Kungfu.html

The 12 Zodiac animals in their race:  http://media.photobucket.com/image/recent/firefoxthief/zodiaccolor.jpg'
Snake with Skink (1877) by Kitagawa Utamaro, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/60001395

Snake by Ai Weiwei, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC: http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/ai-weiwei-according-to-what/#detail=/bio/ai-weiwei-snake-ceiling-2009/&collection=ai-weiwei-according-to-what

East Asian Lunar Zodiac:  http://www.china-family-adventure.com/chinese-zodiac.html

Shinzo Abe at January 2013 Press Conference: http://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Asia/Story/A1Story20130106-393648.html

Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve (1526), Courtauld Institute of Art, London: http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/collections/paintings/renaissance/cranach.shtml

Cobra shading Parsvanatha , India, 12th Century, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/j/jainism-jinas-and-other-deities/

Vishnu sheltered by five-headed snake Adishesha, Parsurameswar Temple, Bhupaneswar, Orissa, India:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bishnu.jpg

Jade Emperor, Jade Emperor Temple, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, photo by Glyn John Willett, Virtual Traveler: http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/1fc5d7/

Buddha on coiled naga snake, Wat Chedi Jet Thaew, Thailand: http://sukhothai.thaiwebsites.com/watchedijetthaew-sisatchanalai.asp

Muchalinda shading the Buddha, Muchalinda Lake, Bhodghaya, Bihar: http://www.touristlink.com/india/muchalinda-lake/overview.html

Naga at Angkor Wat: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travelblogs/241/157377/A+Little+History%E2%80%A6Myths+and+Spirits+in+Modern+Myanmar?destId=357592

Red snake design at start of personality trait description: http://kaixin.com.au/chinese-zodiac/2010/10/18/chinese-zodiac-year-of-the-snake-she.html

Snake netsuke, Japan, 19th Century, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University: http://jameelcenter.ashmolean.org/collection/4/1238/1242/6405

Buddha with snakes, Mandalay, Myanmar: http://www.allmyanmar.com/Mandalay-Images.htm

Paiwan wooden snake, Late 19th Century Taiwan. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/50008838?rpp=20&pg=1&ao=on&ft=snake&where=Asia|Taiwan&pos=1

Black water snake: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Snake.svg

Closing year of snake image:  http://www.freepik.com/free-vector/wind-chinese-year-of-the-snake-card-vector-material_609894.htm


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