The Chinese Zodiac, known as Sheng Xiao, is based on a twelve year cycle, each year in that cycle related to an animal sign. These animal signs are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. It is calculated according to Chinese lunar calendar.
The Chinese Calendar is based on five cycles of 12 years each, with each cycle tempered by one of the 5 Chinese elements - Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. Each year features one of the 12 animal signs, and the year 2013 is that of the Water Snake.
Similar to the ten heavenly stems and twelve earthly branches, animals in Chinese zodiac were also created for counting years as the system that is now universally accepted based on the Christian calendar was as yet non-existent. The selection and order of the animals that influence people's lives very much was originated in the Han Dynasty (206 – 220) and based upon each animal's character and living habits.
The old time division was mostly related to number 12: one ji equals 12 years, one year has 12 months, one day has 12 time periods called shi chen. Ancient people observe that there are 12 full moons within one year. So, its origin is associated with astronomy. Each animal sign is usually related with an earthly branch, so the animal years were called zi rabbit, chou ox, yin tiger, mao rabbit, chen dragon, si snack, wu horse, wei sheep, shen monkey, you rooster, xu dog and hai pig.
12 Animal Signs
For a long time there has been a special relationship between humans and the 12 zodiacal animals. It is believed that the years represented by the animals affect the characters of people in the same manner as the sign of zodiac adopted by western civilizations.
Chinese Zodiac Compatibility
People under different animal signs have distinct characters. Some signs are perfect match while some are less compatible or even born opponents. Use the tool on the right to test the compatibility for you and your partner!
Chinese Zodiac Stories
There are many legends and mythology related to Chinese zodiac and there are various versions and stories popular in different regions. Why were there twelve animals in the zodiac calendar and how did the scheme order come from? Here are the most well-know stories, as an important part of Chinese zodiacal culture.
The Order of the Animals
This is the most widespread legend about Chinese zodiac. The Jade Emperor (The Emperor in Heaven in Chinese folklore) ordered that animals would be designated as calendar signs and the twelve that arrived first would be selected. At that time, the cat and the rat were good friends and neighbors. When they heard of this news, the cat said to the rat: 'We should arrive early to sign up, but I usually get up late.' The rat then promised to awaken his friend and go together.
However, on the morning when he got up, he was too excited to recall his promise, and went directly to the gathering place. On the way, he encountered the tiger, ox, horse, and other animals that ran much faster. In order not to fall behind them, he thought up a good idea. He made the straightforward ox carry him on condition that he sang for the ox. At last, the ox and him arrived first. The ox was happy thinking that he would be the first sign of the years, but the rat had already slid in front, and became the first lucky animal of the Chinese zodiac.
Meanwhile his neighbor the cat was too late so when it finally arrived, the selection was over. That's why other animals appear behind the little rat and why the cat hates the rat so much that every time they meet, the cat will chase and kill it.
Another folk story tells that Cat and Rat were the worst swimmers in the animal kingdom. Although they were poor swimmers, they were both quite intelligent. To get to the meeting called by the Jade Emperor, they had to cross a river to reach the meeting place. The Jade Emperor had also decreed that the years on the calendar would be named for each animal in the order they arrived to the meeting. Cat and Rat decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hop on the back of Ox. Ox, being naïve and good-natured, agreed to carry them both across. Midway across the river, Rat pushed Cat into the water. Then as Ox neared the other side of the river, Rat jumped ahead and reached the shore first. So he claimed first place in the competition and the zodiac.
Following closely behind was strong Ox who was named the 2nd animal in the zodiac. After Ox, came Tiger, panting, while explaining to the Jade Emperor how difficult it was to cross the river with the heavy currents pushing it downstream all the time. But with its powerful strength, Tiger made to shore and was named the 3rd animal in the cycle.
Suddenly, from a distance came a thumping sound, and the Rabbit arrived. It explained how it crossed the river: by jumping from one stone to another in a nimble fashion. Halfway through, it almost lost the race, but the Rabbit was lucky enough to grab hold of a floating log that later washed him to shore. For that, it became the 4th animal in the Zodiac cycle. In 5th place was the Flying Dragon. Of course, the Jade Emperor was deeply curious as to why a swift flying creature such as the Dragon should fail to reach first place.
The mighty Dragon explained that he had to stop and make rain to help all the people and creatures of the earth, and therefore he was held back. Then, on his way to the finish, he saw a little helpless Rabbit clinging onto a log so he did a good deed and gave a puff of breath to the poor creature so that it could land on the shore. The Jade Emperor was very pleased with the actions of the Dragon, and he was added into the zodiac cycle. As soon as he had done so, a galloping sound was heard, and the Horse appeared. Hidden on the Horse's hoof was the Snake, whose sudden appearance gave the Horse a fright, thus making it fall back and giving the Snake the 6th spot, while the Horse placed 7th.
Not long after that, a little distance away, the Goat, Monkey, and Rooster came to the shore. These three creatures helped each other to get to where they are. The Rooster spotted a raft, and took the other two animals with it. Together, the Goat and the Monkey cleared the weeds, tugged and pulled and finally got the raft to the shore. Because of their combined efforts, the Emperor was very pleased and promptly named the Goat as the 8th creature, the Monkey as the 9th, and the Rooster the 10th.
The 11th animal was the Dog. Although he was supposed to be the best swimmer, he could not resist the temptation to play a little longer in the river. Though his explanation for being late was because he needed a good bath after a long spell. For that, he almost didn't make it to the finish line. Just as the Jade Emperor was about to call it a day, an oink and squeal was heard from a little Pig. The Pig got hungry during the race, promptly stopped for a feast and then fell asleep. After the nap, the Pig continued the race and was named the 12th animal of the zodiac cycle. The Cat drowned in 13th place and did not make it in the zodiac. It is said that that is the reason why Cats always chase Rats; to get back at them for what they have done.
Another folk story tells that on registration day, the Rat met up with the Ox. He thought to himself "Ox is the fastest, strongest animal!" So the little Rat played a trick on the Ox. He asked the Ox if he would like to listen to him sing. The Rat opened his mouth but said nothing. "How was that?" he asked the Ox and of course he replied "Sorry little Rat, I didn't hear you." The Rat told the Ox to let him jump onto his back so that he could sing it more clearly, and the Ox agreed. Soon without knowing, the Ox was walking to the signing post, forgetting the Rat on his back. When they reached there, the Rat jumped off and claimed first place. The Ox following and the rest.
In Buddhism, legend has it that Buddha summoned all of the animals of the earth to come before him before his departure from this earth, but only 13 animals actually came to bid him farewell. To reward the animals who came to him, he named a year after each of them. The years were given to them in the order they had arrived.
The 12 animals for the Chinese zodiac must have been developed in the early stage of Chinese civilization for hundreds of years until it become the current edition; and it’s very hard to investigate the real origin. Most historians agree that Cat is not in the list since the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac were formed before Cats were introduced to China from India with Buddhism.
Another story tells that God called the animals to a banquet that night. The Rat, who loved to play tricks on his neighbour, told the cat that the banquet was on the day after tomorrow. The Cat believed his neighbour the Rat and slept whilst dreaming of the banquet. The next day, the rat arrived first followed by the ox, the tiger and the rest of the animals. The order of the animals was decided by the order that they arrived. The Cat was devastated and vowed that he would always hate the Rat. This is why cats chase rats in folklore.
12 Zodiac Signs and Time
Rat: 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., named zi shi (time period of zi). This is the time rats actively seek food.
Ox: 1 to 3 a.m., named chou shi (time period of chou). This is the time that oxen ruminate.
Tiger: 3 to 5 a.m., named yin shi (time period of yin). Tigers hunt prey and display their fiercest nature.
Rabbit: 5 to 7 a.m., named mao shi (time period of mao). Based on tales, the jade rabbit on the moon was busy pounding medicinal herb with a pestle.
Dragon: 7 to 9 a.m., named chen shi (time period of Chen). Dragons were said to hover in the sky at that time to give people rainfall.
Snake: 9 to 11 a.m., named si shi (time period of si). Snakes start to leave their burrows.
Horse: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., named wu shi (time period of wu). The day is flourishing with the sun high above. Other animals are lying down for a rest while the unconstrained horse is still vigorous.
Sheep: 1 to 3 p.m., named wei shi (time period of wei). It was said that if sheep ate grass at this time, they would grow stronger.
Monkey: 3 to 5 p.m., named shen shi (time period of shen). Monkeys become lively.
Rooster: 5 to 7 p.m., named you shi (time period of you). Roosters return to their roost as it is dark.
Dog: 7 to 9 p.m., named shu shi (time period of shu). Dogs begin to carry out their duty to guard entrances.
Pig: 9 to 11 p.m., named hai shi (time period of hai). All is quiet and pigs are sleeping soundly.