Decoding Chinese Astrology

“Wow I ran into an astrologer and he read my experience precisely! How come?!” You are amazed.

“Well, just some guessing plus coincidences.” Your friend shrugged. 

Regardless what you think of astrology, its mystical flare is fascinating. The idea that a total stranger can read your past, present and future within a few minutes gives a lot of prospects about your own life, and is in the meantime scary.  Along with the fear of the unknowns are usually some tingling exhilaration and curiosity. How is he able to do it? Did he just read my face and already know everything? Is his accuracy purely of luck? Based on what did he make his conclusions, or conjectures? These questions could haunt you for days and even months.


This article explains the work of one subject of the Chinese astrology, which shares much similarity with the western astrology on its rationale, not approach. The article is not intended to encourage readers to follow or unfollow astrology, but to explain some interesting facts about its mystical nature as a fun part of the culture discovery.

The specific subject of astrology focused on here is destiny reading. Fengshui and others are not discussed.


Similar to western astrology, the 7000 year-old Chinese astrology explores the symmetry between the individual as a microcosm and the celestial environment as a macrocosm – to be specific, how energy generated in the universe is received by a person on earth.

Unlike the western astrology which looks at yearly, monthly and daily ups and downs of life, Chinese destiny-reading astrology focuses on the long run, for instance, what is the overall picture of this person’s life? What are the major events that causes a jumpstart or a downturn in every single case? What is the maximize he can reach for everything – life span, wealth and family? From which year to which will he live a difficult, smooth or abundant life?

** How is life read? **

Even though approaches vary among a number of schools of thinking, the rudimentary methodologies are applied almost in every case. The Chinese astrology translates each piece of one’s birth year, month, day and time into two characters with specific implications. When being analyzed, they make a column of “data”  (as shown on the two middle rows on the chart below), with the above symbolizing celestial power and the bottom earthly potential associated with that time. With 2 elements for each column, 4 columns covering year, month, day and time make 8. Therefore, this unique school of life reading is called “ba zi” (eight characters), which provides the basic information of one’s life for sophisticated analysis to be conducted on.

Ba Zi Birth Chart

However, why are there 2 elements for each column? Because everything is the work of the combination of celestial power and earthly potential.

Celestial power: termed “Heavenly Stem”, represents the work of the constellation

Earthly potential: termed “Earthly Branch”, represents the intrinsic quality, personality and potential of a person

Year, month, date and time give implication on both aspects. In the chart above, the two middle rows with the largest fonts are the 8 most important characters mentioned, with the upper row indicating the celestial power and the lower indicating the earthly potential. Each of these eight characters are translated into one of the long-standing 5 elements (fire, wood, metal, water and earth), and the ones at the bottom are further broken down to 1-3 components, with each translated into one of the 4 elements (as seen on the bottom row of the chart). Eventually, what the astrologist does is to identify, understand, weigh and measure the mutual reaction among all these elements which sit in a person’s core framework, and apply suitable formula, techniques and theorems within his knowledge to formulate his vision.

Not only are the vertical relationships between the celestial and earthly power examined, horizontal and diagonal relationships are measured as well – do the elements mutually enforce, negate, weaken or generate quality changes when being together? The process resembles analyzing chemical reactions among natural elements that we’ve learned back in high school – i.e. in certain physical environment, water and oxygen can form water; similarly, in certain celestial environment, fire and wood can form water, or water and earth can negate earth yet empower water. Almost everything is evaluated upon the core value of balance and the ying-yang harmony – for instance, fire becomes a bad thing when there is too much, and needs to be negated with water or earth (fire, in generating ashes/earth, exhausts itself.) This aligns with the ancient philosophical thinking (and fact) that two apparently separate things are in fact connected in subtle, indirect yet influential ways.

** So birth time tells everything? **

No. It tells whether a person has balanced personality, his or her basic character traits, capabilities and potential. It also tells whether his potential, in general, has some degree of celestial backing. Whether the potential can be converted into reality in future depends on one solid factor – timing, which in the world of Chinese astrology, really translates into how the combination of his next 80 years of celestial and earthly power work together to fulfill his potential. A close reflection is that in real life, a person might be set out for success with a good genetic, family and educational foundation, but people and circumstances don’t work towards his favor. This is where chances, randomness, unknowns and unfathomable work together to make things happen even though the happening, in a hindsight, are justly explained in scientific ways and objective manners by both believers and non-believers.

** How far can an astrologer go? **

The answer is there can never be a 100% definite and precise conclusion on a person’s fate. The reason? Because astrology, although formalized by strict and complex rules and theorems, is still subject to intensive volatility and ambiguity generated throughout continuous movement of the celestial elements, with its impact and results beyond humans’ eyes yet subject to human interpretation.

Even though an overall roadmap can be sketched, the micro dynamics within each compartment of life stages and modules are difficult to pin down. This is where the most meticulous heed and calculation are needed. Is water getting enough support to put down the fire? Is fire getting enough support to override the effect of water and earth? Perhaps in this case water will not be effective at all to negate or balance fire because wood is generating more fire to work against this hope? Or, perhaps the fire is no longer fire by nature in this circumstance because it’s already assimilated into metal due to the presence of this particular element in that particular environment and setting? It requires opaque eyes, mind and rich experience to quantify qualitative impact in the middle of the clutter. Yet still, some moving parts are still bound to be neglected just because of the ever-changing nature of everything in this philosophy.

Therefore, rarely does an (educated and moral) ba-zi astrologer conclude on a micro-level, specific and concrete matter with 100% confidence. What he can do is to – based on basic principles, formula and his experience – avoid the trivial dynamic (i.e. getting a promotion tomorrow, or a fat bonus at year end) and instead draw a long-run picture and schedule of a person’s life path, where major happenings in the realm of family, health and wealth are concerned.  Chinese Astrology, in the end, is not about intuition, 6th sense or higher consciousness power. It rather requires a mathematically analytical mind with some gleaming chemistry talents.

** Is life pre-destined? **

In the eyes of an astrologer – yes.

Is it pre-destined 100%?  No.

The bones and marrow of the Chinese Taoism philosophy, where all schools of astrology are founded, is the thinking on incessant randomness and changes that fill the world with substances. That means under the recurring laws, patterns and cycles of any natural phenomena, there are hidden nuances, uncertainties and causalities that are let to happen within the universe.

Everything, including humans, is a part of the system that is in his own destined role for his very existence. He, regardless how intuitive, intelligent and spiritual, is not above the system to oversee all or change any. That’s why every verdict – no matter how positive or negative – has a chance for errors or a tiny event that overthrows it. That error might not be due to an astrologer’s miscalculation or negligence, it could plainly be a result of the ever-changing universe, constellation, the constantly and mutually interacting five elements exerting force on each other.

  • Frank Yan

    Very enlightening written, well explained in an interesting tones.

    • Leslie Chen

      Understanding the philosophy behind really helps making sense of things in astrology.

  • Starbuxstranger

    Very interesting., under this philosophy nothing can be 100% fated.

    • Frank Yan

      indeed a good writing piece.

  • Elara Mehta

    This is informative and such similarities between Indian and Chinese astrology framework