Taiwan’s government has just announced that the country’s total fertility rate (or TFR, the average number of children a woman would bear in her lifetime if the birth rate of a particular year were to remain unchanged) in 2010 was the lowest in its history at 0.91 children per woman. It’s the lowest rate any country has ever reported in history. The announcement itself is a bit of a projection since births have been officially reported only through November 2010. The country’s TFR had declined to 1.1 in 2005 and had remained there through 2009.
The rather spectacular drop in 2010 was due to an additional reason: 2010 is the Year of the Tiger on the Chinese calendar, beginning on February 14. The Tiger year is particularly inauspicious for births since Tigers, while seen as brave, are also seen as headstrong and possibly difficult to work with. It is quite common for employers to consider the zodiac of job applicants and Tigers may be avoided so that parents have some concrete reasons to avoid having a child in Tiger years. While there has been a lot of concern over the demographic situation for some time, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has now called for measures to increase the birth rate to be raised to the “national security level.”
Births for the 12-month period ending November 2010 dropped to 169,884 from 191,310 in 2009 but there is some hope for those wishing to raise the birth rate. The Year of the Dragon is a favorable year for births and is two years after the Tiger year in the zodiac cycle. In 1998, the last Year of the Tiger, births dropped to 271,450 from 326,002 the year before. But, in 2000, the following Dragon year, births jumped back up to 305,312. A similar pattern had been seen in previous cycles. Nonetheless, the sharp decline in births, regardless of which year it might be, from the late 1990s to the present is very obvious. Another helpful sign is that the number of marriages increased in 2010 by about 20,000 over 2009, a year known as a “widow’s year.” The effect of astrological concerns, common in many other Asian countries, also extends to the more precise timing of births. For that reason, Taiwan has a rather high proportion of caesarean section births, about 30 percent.
Over at Asia Times, Jens Kastner traces the intimate link between the zodiac and the fertility rate in Taiwan's demographic history. The noteworthy thing, from the demographic perspective, is that birth and fertility rates haven't proven as quick to recover recently than a generation ago, if recover they do at all.
The historic graphs in the Statistical Data Book of Taiwan's Ministry of the Interior speak volumes. Recorded from the 1950s on, birth rates in Taiwan have been clearly influenced by the ancient Chinese zodiac's 12 animal signs. The years in which Taiwanese couples decided to give birth most often came in the Year of the Dragon: 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988 and 2000.
The belief is that children born under the dragon sign are not only honest, sensitive and brave, but will also be free from habits like borrowing money or making flowery speeches. Quite the opposite is believed about the Year of the Tiger. Whoever was born in 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986 or 1998 tends to question authority and is therefore likely to cause trouble for himself, his family or to his employers at some stage of life.
But aren't these worn-out superstitions that modern Taiwan, a world leader in information technology, no longer heeds? There is strong evidence that the island still does. Last year was again the Year of Tiger, and despite more subsidies, 24,424 fewer babies were born than in 2009. But for 2012, the next Year of the Dragon, it is feared that Taiwan could await the bounce back of the birth rate in vain.
"The effect of the tiger and dragon years on fertility behavior in Taiwan and many other Chinese societies in Southeast Asia is not just media hype but a very important issue," says Yang Wen-shan, professor at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences at Taipei's Academia Sinica, in an interview with Asia Times Online. "In Taiwanese demographic history, during the tiger years, the fertility rate drops, while in the dragon ones, it rises. The expert on demography nonetheless cautions that the Taiwanese could well be disappointed with the baby yield of the next Year of the Dragon. "In recent years, while fertility dropped as usual during the tiger years, it failed to fully recover in the subsequent Year of the Dragon, unlike in the past.”
The phenomenon of astrological influence on birth rates has been noted before, most famously in 1966, the "Year of the Fire Horse".
In general, Horses are outgoing, people-loving, and successful. However, in the Fire element their freedom-loving traits turn to rebelliousness, hubris, and destruction. While this potential was tolerated in a male child, it was thought to be ominous in a woman. The common belief in most Asian countries was that a Fire Horse woman would devastate her nuclear family, drain them of resources, and bring about the early death of her father. If a husband could be found for a Fire Horse woman, he would be mistreated and meet an early death himself. Several stories have perpetuated this fallacy such as a popular Japanese tale dating as far back as 1682 about a Fire Horse woman who nearly burned down the city of Edo.
This had a very strong effect on fertility in Japan, births fell by a half-million (by 20% or increased number of abortions, while one source claims that Taiwan's birth rate fell by a quarter in the same year. A similar effect may plausibly have been felt in South Korea. The extent of the fall may be overestimated owing to the delayed registration of births towards the end of 1966, but the effect is real.
The consequences of all this? Besides creating significant surges and falls in the size of age cohorts, with implications for everything from education to the labour market, there's some evidence that these astrological perceptions influence life outcomes. In the paper "Does Fortune Favor Dragons?" (PDF format) by Noel D. Johnson and John V.C. Nye, the authors argued that the stereotypes associated to births in different years do lead to different outcomes, simply because parents will treat different children born in different years according to different stereotypes.