The Origins of the Chinese Zodiac
The first mention of the zodiac can be found in the Book of Odes (Shijing). At one point, the character Xiaoya Chegong says: “Auspicious GengWu is a good day for horse hunting,” which was the first mention of the Wu character and Horse together. The method of counting years using the Chinese zodiac originated in the South and North Dynasty. In Yu Wenhu’s biography, a portion of a book about the North Dynasty’s history, he records a letter from his mother. The letter says: “I gave birth to your two brothers in Wuchuan Town. The zodiac of your eldest brother is Rat and the other brother, Rabbit. Yours is Snake.” The passage shows that the Chinese zodiac had been used to measure the years and influenced people’s lives at that time.
To this day, there is no exact proof of the origins of the Chinese zodiac. However, because it is convenient, common, and fascinating, it has continued to be valued and used. As well, the zodiac has since become a very practical and valuable part of the national heritage.
Calculation methods of the Chinese Zodiac
Lichun (the beginning of Spring) in the Chinese lunar calendar means the beginning of a new zodiac, a new year, and the first solar term of the 24 solar terms. But in today’s China, people tend to consider the new year based on the first day of the New Year in the Chinese lunar calendar. About half of the Chinese people calculate their zodiac based on the first day of the New Year of the Chinese lunar calendar, while the other half believe it starts from Lichun.
The Selection and Order of Animal Signs
Animal signs have close ties with the way the Chinese people’s daily and social lives are carred out. There are roughly 3 categories of animals. The first category is the Six Domestic Animals—ox, goat, horse, pig, dog, and rooster. These 6 animals, known as liuchu in Chinese, is a vital concept in the Chinese agricultural culture. They traditionally believe that these animals are particularly thriving (liu chu xing wang), thus indicating large and promising families and auspiciousness. Because of this, those living people in rural areas like to wish each other Liu Chu Xing Wang during the Chinese New Year.
The second category of the Chinese zodiac symbols is wildlife animals—tiger, rabbit, monkey, rat, and snake. The third and final category is the Chinese traditional symbolic mascot all in its own class—dragon. The dragon is the quintessence symbol of the Chinese nation, representing wealth and auspiciousness.
Where Is the Cat?
There are many folklore stories about this topic. However, the practical reason is that there were no cats in ancient China. Cats originated from old Egypt, and the Chinese zodiac existed before they were brought to China. In addition, tigers and cats are part of the same biological family, so a member of the cat family actually still has a seat in the Chinese zodiac. All of this helps to show that the selection of animal signs was not arbitrary; on the contrary, everything contains a meaning depending on the angle it is perceived from.
The Order of Animals Signs
Why is the order of the animal signs the way it is? There are 3 main explanations that all approach the mystery from vastly different angles. The folklore story is rather attractive and delightful, and is one of the most popular ways to explain the development of Chinese zodiac culture. On the other hand, the tale about dividing the 12 animal signs into 2 categories, Yin and Yang, emphasizes the relationship between each animal and other facets of Chinese culture.
1. Folklore story
According to legend, Huangdi wanted to select 12 animals to be his palace guards during his reign. The cat asked the rat to help register. However, the rat entirely forgot his promise and thus the cat wasn’t listed. From then on, the cat and the rat became enemies. The elephant also desired to participate in this competition, but the cunning rat entered its trunk to push it away. As for the other animals, the ox was originally the first, but the rat climbed up the ox’s back and the pig tried to follow. As a result, the rat became the first of the animal signs while the pig became the last. As the Mountain King and the Ocean King, respectively, the tiger and the dragon were not satisfied that they were listed behind the rat and the ox. The rabbit also felt it was unfair, so it raced with the dragon and successfully won a rank ahead of the dragon. At this moment, the dog thought the situation was entirely unfair as well, so it bit the rabbit. Unfortunately, because of this, the dog was made the penultimate sign as a punishment. The snake, the horse, the goat, the monkey, and the rooster later finally found their positions after this dramatic competition.
2. The Ancient Explanation of 12 Hours of Day and Night
In ancient China, the days were divided into 12 shichen and each shichen was the equivalent of 2 hours today. The ancient people named each shichen according to the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.
On a dark night, nothing could be seen on this planet. The rat, which is active at midnight, bit out a gap between heaven and earth. The midnight time from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am (zi) relates with the animal sign of the rat. After the heaven was open, it was time for the animals to leave from the earth. The ox is the most diligent animal and is good at farming. Therefore the time from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (chou) relates with the sign of ox. The time 3:00 am to 5:00 am (yin) is generally thought of as the time for the birth of a baby, and birth is often related paradoxically with death. People believe that the tiger can always kill a man. Hence the animal sign of the time yin is the tiger.
Mao refers to the ancient division of time from 5:00 am to 7:00 am when the sun rises. But during this early period, the moon is still in the sky, which often makes people think of the rabbit. That is the reason why mao’s animal sign is the rabbit. Chen, the time from 7:00 am to 9:00 am, is also said to be the sign of March, and March is the time of dragons dancing in the rain according to legend. This, the time chen belongs to the dragon animal sign. The time from 9:00 am to 11:00 am is known as si, which is when the snake goes back to its hole, so it belongs to the animal sign of the snake.
Wu, which is noontime from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm, is the period that Yang qi comes to its max and Yin qi starts. The horse is said to be an animal between Yang and Yin, so the wu symbolizes the horse. After wu, it is wei, the time period from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm, the goat’s best time for eating grass. Therefore wei belongs to the goat. Shen follows wei closely, as it is near sunset and the monkey moans; hence the monkey is the animal sign of shen.
When the sunset finally comes, the rooster goes back to its henhouse, making you the sign of the rooster. When night approaches, the hour is known as xu, and the dog is responsible for guarding the house at night. As such, xu is the animal sign the dog. Then hai comes, and the world is again thrust into the dark like a stone wrapped in a fruit. The pig is widely known as an animal that can do nothing but eat, so it is the animal sign of hai in the deep of night.
3. Two Categories of Yin and Yang for the Twelve Animals
3. 2 Categories of Yin and Yang for the 12 Animals
The ancient Chinese believed that the 12 animal signs of the zodiac are divided into 2 categories by Yin and Yang. In addition, they thought odd numbers belong to Yang while even numbers belong to Yin.
When speaking about the foot of an animal, its toe count is generally the same on all feet. However, the toe count of the rat’s forefoot is 4 while the back foot is 5. Odd numbers with even numbers of toes in the same animal is rather rare. Hence the rat ranks the first. Then comes the ox with 4 toes, the tiger with 5 toes, the rabbit with 4 toes, the dragon with 5 toes, the snake with no toes, the horse with 1 toe, the goat with 4 toes, the monkey with 5 toes, the rooster with 4 toes, the dog with 5 toes, and the pig with 4 toes. Therefore in total, there are 6 animals with odd toe numbers which places them in the Yang category, and another 6 creatures with even toe numbers belonging to Yin.
Characteristics of each Animal Sign
People born in the Year of the Rat are attractive, social, influential, smart, thrifty, and charming, but also easy to become nervous, wordy, cunning, desire power, and prone to greediness. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Dragon, the Monkey, and the Ox, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Goat, the Horse, the Rabbit, or the Rooster.
People born in the Year of the Rat are straightforward, innovative, diligent, expressive, purposeful, and stable, but also indifferent, stubborn, prejudiced, slow, and revengeful. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Rat, the Snake, and the Rooster, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Goat, the Horse, the Dog, or the Dragon.
People born in the Year of the Tiger are enthusiastic, lucky, brave, kind-hearted, charming, and powerful, but also impulsive, boastful, irritable, indulgent, disobedient, and flighty. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Dog and the Horse, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Snake or the Monkey.
People born in the Year of the Rabbit are witty, careful, skillful, , righteous kind, and hopeful, but also too cautious, pessimistic, and boastful. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Dog and the Goat, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Rat, the Ox, the Rooster, the Horse, or the Monkey.
People born in the Year of the Dragon are powerful, enthusiastic, successful, bold, healthy, and passionate, but also stiff, confused, distrustful, and boastful. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Rat, the Rabbit, and the Monkey, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Dog, the Ox, the Rooster, or the Dragon.
People born in the Year of the Snake are wise, instinctive, attractive, smart, cautious, and sympathetic, but also greedy, material, lazy, narcissistic, arrogant, and disguised. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Ox, the Rooster, and the Horse, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Tiger, the Monkey, or the Pig.
People born in the Year of the Horse are convincing, fashionable, disciplined, popular, and successful, but also selfish, rash, arrogant, impatient, stubborn, and conceited. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Snake, the Goat, and the Dog, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Rat, the Ox, the Rabbit, or the Horse.
People born in the Year of the Goat are creative, sensitive, courteous, have good taste, and perseverant, but also dependent, pessimistic, lack vision, impractical, slow, and worried. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Rabbit, the Horse, and the Pig, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Rat, the Ox, or the Dog.
People born in the Year of the Monkey are improvisational, witty, smart, stable, and honest, but also cunning, foolish, wordy, and speculative. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Rat and the Dragon, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Tiger, the Snake, or the Pig.
People born in the Year of the Rooster are enthusiastic, attractive, frank, humorous, and flexible, but also arrogant, boastful, proud, and idolatrous. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Ox, the Snake, and the Dragon, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Rabbit, the Rooster, or the Dog.
People born in the Year of the Dog are enduring, responsible, clever, honest, respectable, and integrated, but also anxious, critical, socially awkward, self-righteous, and tactful. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Tiger, the Rabbit, and the Horse, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Ox, the Dragon, the Goat, or the Rooster.
People born in the Year of the Pig are cautious, brave, sincere and active but also irritable, stubborn, assertive, gullible, and material. They are mostly blessed when matched with people born in the Year of the Goat and the Rabbit, and should never be matched with those born in the Year of the Snake, the Pig, or the Monkey.
Do you want to know what your zodiac sign is? Try our Chinese zodiac signs calculator!