It was in 1990, the so-called year of the metal horse – or more commonly known as the year of the white horse in Korea – that I was born, a lightweight but otherwise a healthy girl. As I grew up, quarrels between my friends often turned to the characteristics of the horse zodiac – smart, active, impatient and argumentative, apparently, if we are to borrow some words from The Chicago Tribune. Often boys would gleefully yell, “You will never be able to marry!”
The accursed white horse – two cycles of twelve years have passed, and here we are at 2014. It feels imperative now to write about what happened in 1990, where a baby girl was generally unwelcomed and was said to bring ill fortune upon herself and others, especially the husband (Kim, 1997).
This is a graph showing the changes in South Korean gender ratio at birth, male to female throughout 1981 to 2012. Normalized at 100, we see a sharp soar in the ratio in 1990. The Chicago Tribune article quoted above sums up the whole affair very nicely, and by the looks of it, things weren’t very different in Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Try inputting “zodiac birth rate fertility” in scholar.google.com.) Small wonder that a few girls of my own cohort would sometimes say darkly, “I’m lucky that my mother did not have an abortion when she had me.”
Sex-selective birth rates in the next graph are even more horrid.
Well, there you have it – you can imagine a typical family of three children, with two daughters and the youngest one a son. Not an uncommon form of birth orders, but it is likely to be, sickeningly, unnatural. Much worse jump in 1990, too. All for the sake of a patriarchal society and the preservation of a bloodline.
Korean scholars say that such superstitions never existed before the Japanese colonization, if you look at which years the Chosun Dynasty’s queens were born in. Who knows. In Japan, the effect of the zodiac is palpable, especially in the year of the fire horse, 1966. The Japanese women born in 1966 seems to be in disadvantage especially in the marriage market – but then, Korean women also face the same stigma. In fact, there is a paper in Economic Letters by Jungmin Lee, now in Sogang University, that used the Horse Year as an IV since it provides a strong exogenous influence on female marital status.
Of course, on the contrary, the favorite zodiac signs such as the dragon or the pig have positive effects on fertility and birth rates. Studies of China seem to emphasize incremental effects of the Dragon Year on birth rates (Yip et al., 2002) rather than fertility-deterring effects of other particular zodiac signs, as in Korea or Japan – I wonder why. Maybe the superstitions are different by country.
I fear for many of those who will be conceived this year. By the looks of it, the girls of 2014 will also have to fight through the same madness that girls of my age had to struggle through.