Year of the cock

« previous post | next post »

For some reason, the Chinese have taken to comparing President Elect Trump to a rooster, this year's symbol in the 12-year cycle of the zodiac.

A giant chicken sculpture outside a shopping mall in Taiyuan, north China's
Shanxi province, that looks like US president-elect Donald Trump Getty Images

Here are some news reports on the significance of the sculpture:

It's not the first time that PEOTUS Trump has been compared to a fowl in China.  Back in mid-November, he literally became the pheasant-elect as photos of him juxtaposed to a golden pheasant (Wikipedia article in Chinese) went viral on the Chinese internet.

As with several other animals in the Chinese zodiac, there is some ambiguity concerning the correct terminology in English.  See, for example:

In Chinese, the new year will simply be jī nián 鸡年, year of the jī 鸡, and that jī 鸡 — without further qualification — could be chicken, hen, rooster, cock, cockerel, etc.  It always annoys me when people insist that yáng nián 羊年 should be year of the ram, that niú nián 牛年 should be year of the ox or bull, and that jī nián 鸡年 should be year of the rooster, all of which seem to me to make sexist assumptions.  The Chinese terms respectively just indicate "ovicaprid", "bovine", and "fowl".

When I looked for the ghit numbers for the different English translations of jī nián 鸡年, I was a bit surprised by the results, because most of the time I hear "year of the rooster":

year of the chicken 5,240,000

year of the cock 4,650,000

year of the rooster 1,630,000

year of the hen 306,000

year of the cockerel 12,600

Meanwhile, in this new year, lots of people will be punning like this:

jī bùkě shī 鸡不可失 ("don't miss the chicken") for the perfectly homophonous jī bùkě shī 机不可失 ("don't miss the opportunity").

Note the use of toneless pinyin and English as ruby annotation.

(Thanks to David Moser)


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

    In Japanese, it's apparently (per Japanese wikipedia) the year of the 酉. Google translate Englishes that as "rooster" w/o even offering alternative possibilities. Is that just a glitch, with 酉 in Japanese potentially covering a larger range of poultry of both sexes? Or is the Japanese name substantively narrower in semantic scope from the Chinese name? FWIW, google translate renders 酉 from Japanese into Chinese (hey, it says "Chinese" – I assume that means MSM) as 公雞 (or 公鸡 for the Communists). Oddly enough, if you ask google translate to render 鸡 from Chinese into Japanese, you don't even get kanji, but a transliteration as チキン.

    While the twelve-year cycle may have originally come to Japan from China way back when, I do not see any principled reason why English usage should need to follow Chinese (or "Chinese") over Japanese (or Korean or etc.) to the extent they are not perfectly congruent with each other. My perspective may be colored by having learned the animals in the cycle (in English) while living as a boy in Japan, with a younger brother (turning 48 this year) who was, I was given to understand, a Rooster.

  2. E.T. said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

    酉 does not refer to poultry in any language. The original (archaic) meaning is "wine vessel", and in the context of the 12 earthly branches it is basically a numeral (10) as far as I understand. I don’t believe there are any local differences in terms of the animals associated with each branch; there are some difference in characters used (such as 犬 vs. 狗), but both Chinese and Japanese use 鶏 for the coming year.

    Anyway, the gender of the fowl in question is uncertain. Prof. Mair had a post regarding confusion around the year of the sheep/goat two years ago:
    Year of the ovicaprid

  3. krogerfoot said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

    As I'm sure many others will point out, J.W. Brewer is absolutely right that in Japan this is 酉年, and that the bird in question is definitely 鶏・ニワトリ, niwatori, chicken. The only consensus on why 酉 tori has come to stand for "bird" in the Chinese zodiac, at least to my Googling, is "no one knows." Articles like this one note that 酉 tori traditionally denoted six o'clock ("time for a drink"), which leads some to surmise that it was used in place of 鶏 for the benefit of the unlettered populace. This explanation isn't terribly convincing, but at any rate my Japanese Google trail is littered with posts reminding people to write 酉 and not 鶏 on their New Year's cards.

    From the post mentioned above:


  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 9:53 pm

    OK, but contrary to the perhaps unnecessarily masculinist tradition of English translation, actual Japanese practice is consistent that the bird for the year of the 酉 is a 鶏 that could equally well be of either sex, not even presumptively a specifically male 雄鶏?

  5. liuyao said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 11:30 pm

    Not sure if everyone is aware that 酉 (yǒu in MSM), being the 10th of the 12 earthly stems, matches with the 10th animal in the "zodiac." This (coming) year, for instance, is year 丁酉. When referring to two-hour period of the day, 酉 is 5:00 to 7:00 PM.

    Do the Japanese mistake the other earthly stems for the corresponding animals?

  6. satkomuni said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 6:32 am

    No, it's not a mistake. The years according to the old calendar are numbered in a cycle of sixty, counted off using the ten "Heavenly Stems" 天干 (甲、乙、丙、丁、戊、己、庚、辛、壬、癸) and the twelve "Earthly Branches" 地支 (子、丑、寅、卯、辰、巳、午、未、申、酉、戌、亥), like this: 甲子、乙丑、丙寅、…癸酉、甲戌、乙亥、丙子、…

    Baike says the twelve animal signs developed independently, and earlier, and then were associated with the twelve Branches system that was popular in the Han, imho probably just because associating things with other things was, like, cutting edge science in the Han (cf. 四神五行,淮南子 etc.).

  7. Yerushalmi said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 6:45 am

    Well, he's just generally a fowl-mouthed person.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    satkomuni did not understand the thrust of liuyao's question, which is essentially the same as one I had, namely, do the Japanese give kun animal readings for each of the 12 Branches?

    The on reading of 酉 is yū, but they really do make extensive use of the kun reading tori in word formation as "bird; chicken; fowl; cock; rooster; etc.":

    Our question is, do they do the same thing with the animal names of all the other branches?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:28 am

    On 酉

    Here is a long comment on the character for "alcohol".

    See especially near the end, where it gets into the earliest symbols for "beer" in Sumerian and Chinese, both of which depict a jug (that's what 酉 shows; imagine that character with a tapered, rounded bottom, which is what the early form for it looked like).

    And here is a post on a whole series of related characters that contain 酉 as their radical.

    "Let the Beer-Divider Be Chief!" (8/5/09)

  10. B.Ma said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 11:39 am

    @liuyao / VHM

    This question can easily be answered by looking at十二支#.E5.8D.81.E4.BA.8C.E6.94.AF.E3.81.AE.E4.B8.80.E8.A6.A7

    It would seem that the answer is "mostly".

    2,3,5,7,8,9,10,11: same as the animal names – 丑 ushi (cow), 寅 tora (tiger), 辰 tatsu (dragon – but more often pronounced ryuu or ryou – need a proper Japanese speaker to confirm), 午 uma (horse), 未 hitsuji (ovicaprid), 申 saru (monkey), 酉 tori (chicken), 戌 inu (dog)

    1,4,12: the first mora of the animal name – 子 ne / 鼠 nezumi (mouse), 卯 u / 兎 usagi (rabbit), 亥 i / 猪 inoshishi (wild boar)

    6: totally different – 巳 mi versus 蛇 hibi (snake)

    I recently visited a temple in Japan where you were supposed to buy some sort of offering and go to one of twelve stations depending on your birth year, however the years were only marked in hiragana. At the time I noticed that some sounded like animal names, but I was not able to identify the years that our group required as they did not sound like any animal. I now know that I was actually looking at the kunyomi of the 十二支.

  11. satkomuni said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 12:22 pm

    I don't see that gist in liuyao's question, so I guess VM meant krogerfoot, who at least touched on the readings? As far as kun readings, I'm not in a position to otherwise verify, but a look at the first four in Nelson says, interestingly, that they do: ne for 子, ushi for 丑, tora for 寅, u for 卯…

    Anyway, my point is to simply clarify that 酉 does not mean a chicken/fowl (as J.W. Brewer suspected and krogerfoot threw up hands and a folk etymology to accept), the character originally in fact meaning a wine vessel [with a lid] as Victor Mair points out, but it is used to refer to chicken years because those years are always numbered "酉". When the borrowing occurred, the two had already been associated for a long time, so "Okay, this is a chicken year, and the character for the year is 酉, so I'll just say '[my local word for] chicken' for 酉 when I forget how to pronounce it on."

    Looked up his birthday out of curiosity; appears that Trump's a dog.

    …with a cockscomb.

  12. David B Solnit said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 4:31 pm

    It may not be exactly true that "酉 does not refer to poultry in any language". Jerry Norman in 1985 suggested that this word plus five more of the cyclical terms have their source in Austroasiatic languages. That is, in this case the Chinese borrowed the Austroasiatic word for 'rooster' to use in its cyclical meaning, and wrote it with a character that also wrote the (native) word for 'wine vessel'. See "The sexagesimal cycle, from China to Southeast Asia" from SEALS 23 (, by Michel Ferlus, for lotsa details.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

    Obviously it's not the most reliable or complete of sources on the Japanese lexicon, but I was originally struck by the fact that google translate gave "rooster," without even any other poultry-related options as its sole suggestion for 酉, much less any non-poultry suggestions that might indicate different semantics of the on v. kun readings. Now, this may mean that the Japanese texts in the corpora from which google translate makes its predictions very rarely use 酉 outside of a fixed phrase that is near-inevitably translated into English as "year of the rooster" without as much variation even for fillling in the blank on "year of the ___" as VHM thought he'd dug up in the original post.

  14. Krogerfoot said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 6:09 pm

    For my part, I described the folk etymology as "not terribly convincing," by which I meant to imply that it sounds ridiculous. My main point was that, while "酉 does not mean chicken" is true, "both Chinese and Japanese use 鶏 for the coming year" is definitely at odds with the situation here in Japan.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 8:51 pm

    I think what puzzles people, especially those from the China side, is that in Japanese, for some of the Earthly Branches like 酉, the kun (animal term) readings take over and enable the character to be used with the animal meaning both inside and outside of the zodiacal, cyclical calendrical system. Thus 酉 becomes tori in a way that could never happen in Chinese — 酉 could never be used in the sense of jī 鸡 ("chicken") and it does not have as one of its readings jī ("chicken"). It is just yǒu 酉, signifying the tenth in the series of twelve Earthly Branches.

    In Chinese you have a jī nián 鸡年 ("year of the chicken") and a yǒu nián 酉年 ("yǒu year" — in combination with one of the ten Heavenly Stems as part of the sexagenary cycle). They may refer to the same year, but they are different, separate ways of designating the tenth year of the cycle. Jī nián 鸡年 ("year of the chicken") is not completely identical with yǒu nián 酉年 ("yǒu year"), whereas, in Japanese, 酉年 is tori doshi ("year of the chicken"), apparently not yū-nen. I don't know to what extent this pattern applies to the other eleven Earthly Branches in Japanese.

  16. Elessorn said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 1:19 am

    [D]o the Japanese give kun animal readings for each of the 12 Branches?

    I'm not knowledgeable about the early Japanese reception history of what they usually call eto 干支, so I'm hesitant to sign off on "give." For all I know, the fine distinction of "酉年 is associated with the rooster, but 酉 doesn't actually mean 'rooster'" may never have come across clearly, and the Japanese readings were understood as faithful translations from the start. Either way, the association is very, very old.

    In practical terms, however, the answer is yes.

    B.Ma already listed most of them above, but just to run through them with scandalous brevity:

    1. 子 ne (rat)
    [*Maybe it is just the first syllable of today's word, nezumi 鼠, but considering the evidence of #4 and #12, my (unsupported) hunch has always been that this is just a more ancient form.]
    2. 丑 ushi (cow)
    3. 寅 tora (tiger)
    4. 卯 u (rabbit)
    [*The modern word is usagi 兎, but u is documented as an actual older form, rather than just the first syllable."]
    5. 辰 tatsu (dragon)
    [*This character is not pronounced ryū, the (nowadays) more common word for "dragon" (well, besides ドラゴン doragon). Ryū comes from the character 龍(竜), which, by contrast, actually can be read as tatsu, usually in names.)
    6. 巳 mi (snake)
    [*Hemi is attested as an old alternative of the current hebi 蛇. Perhaps this goes back to mi? Unsure but suggestive. ]
    7. 午 uma (horse)
    8. 未 hitsuji (in Japan, sheep),
    9. 申 saru (monkey)
    10. 酉 tori (chicken)
    [*As noted above, pronounced tori, but refers to chicken (niwatori 鶏, lit. "yard bird"), not birds in general. As to rooster vs. hen, unsure, but certainly today at least more often portrayed as a rooster (calling out the New Year?)]
    11. 戌 inu (dog)
    12. 亥 i (wild boar)
    [*Originally from wi by regular sound change, i is attested as an older independent form, and the modern word, inoshishi 猪, transparently reduces to i-no-shishi, where shishi is an archaic word for, um, "meat."]

    Also, it should be said that these characters *with these readings* are not freely useable outside calendrical contexts, though from their importance in the culture a certain amount of leakage occurs, showing up in personal and place names as well as in festivals and other traditional seasonal observances.

  17. mollymooly said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    FWIW, "rooster" is a good deal more common in the US than the UK. I for one was surprised and amused to find the Wikipedia page about the coq gaulois was named "Gallic rooster".

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 11:25 am

    From Peter Kupfer:

    Concerning the discussion about 鸡 and 酉, I suggest we enjoy a good 鸡尾酒 at Chinese New Year!

    VHM: jīwěijiǔ 鸡尾酒 is the Chinese word for "cocktail", a direct translation of the English word (lit., "chicken / fowl / etc.-tail-alcohol"). Unfortunately, the etymology of the word, which first appeared in 1806, is unknown. The idea that it has something to do with the tail of a rooster / cock is just one of numerous theories.

RSS feed for comments on this post