The Chinese Zodiac


Have you ever spent hours pondering over your horoscope, wondering who that “unexpected visitor” might be or what “you will receive a cosmic gift” might mean? If you thought that was complicated, be thankful that you never grew up in China! While some regard it as an antiquated pastime, the Chinese zodiac still plays a focal role in the lives of numerous Chinese people. It is based on a 12-year cycle with 12 different animals representing each year. 

The 12 Zodiac Animals

In order, the 12 animals assigned to the Chinese zodiac are the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep/Goat, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Pig. Therefore, if you were born in 1990, you belong to the Year of the Horse. Anyone born in 1974 is a Tiger, and those born in 2016 are all a bunch of Monkeys! It is believed that you take on the characteristics of your animal sign. Those born in the Year of the Rat are shrewd but also cunning; a Pig is sluggish and lazy but will make up for it with their warm-hearted nature; and Rabbits are as timid as they are gentle and compassionate.

But how did these animals end up in this specific order? To answer that question, we’re going to have to delve into one of China’s oldest legends.

The Great Race

Long ago, the Jade Emperor, the highest ranking deity according to the traditional Chinese pantheon, decided to create a new way of measuring time by splitting it up into a 12-year cycle. As he pondered over his creation, he couldn’t help but feel that a certain earthly element was missing. He surmised that, to fix this problem, he would dedicate each year to a specific animal. 

On his birthday, he announced to all the animals across China that there was to be a swimming race. The first twelve animals to cross the fast-flowing river would become the fabled animals of the Chinese zodiac. 

The morning of the race arrived, and all of the animals waited tentatively on the banks of the river. Realising that he was not a strong swimmer, the cunning rat took advantage of the kind ox and convinced the ox to carry him on his back. The ox was accustomed to water and, while the other animals struggled against the strong current, he made it across easily. However, right before he reached the other bank, the rat leapt from his nose and into first place.

“Well done,” said the Jade Emperor to the proud rat, “thanks to your craftiness, the first year of the zodiac shall be dedicated to you.”

The poor ox, who had been so cruelly tricked, had to settle for second place and thus the second year of the zodiac. 

Shortly after, the tiger clawed his way onto the bank. Strong though he was, swimming against the powerful currents had been an enormous struggle and he was exhausted. His efforts were greatly rewarded, as he became the third animal in the zodiac. 

The rabbit, who was not a capable swimmer, used his muscular legs to jump on stepping stones and floating logs. In this way, he crossed the river and came fourth. However, when the dragon finally arrived in fifth place, the Jade Emperor was deeply bemused.

“Why didn’t you just fly across the river?” the Emperor asked, “Surely you should have won the race.”

“Before the race started, I noticed there was a village on fire,” the kind-hearted dragon replied, “so I flew to it instead and doused the fire out with rain. This is why I was so late.”

As the sound of horses hooves echoed in the air, the Jade Emperor was certain that the horse would be the next animal. However, just as he was about to cross the finish line, the sneaky snake wriggled out from under his hoof where he had been hiding and scared the horse so badly that he leapt back. Thus the snake came in sixth place, and the horse in seventh. According to traditional Chinese culture, this is cited as the reason why horses will always stamp snakes to death!

The next three to arrive were the sheep, the monkey, and the rooster. They had worked together, with the sheep swimming steadily, the monkey clearing the reeds away with his hands, and the rooster keeping time with his mighty voice. They became the eighth, ninth, and tenth animals of the zodiac respectively.

When the dog arrived in eleventh place, the Jade Emperor once again found himself in a state of confusion.

“You are one of the strongest swimmers in the animal kingdom,” the Jade Emperor said, “why have you arrived so late?”

“The water was so clean,” said the simple dog, “I had to stop and take a bath first!”

After a long time waiting, the Jade Emperor became frustrated. He wondered when the twelfth and final animal of the zodiac would finally arrive. Suddenly he heard a grunt, and saw the pig emerging from the river.

“You took your time!” said the Emperor.

“I was hungry, so I stopped to eat,” the pig responded, “Then I became sleepy, so I took a nap.”

Thus the last year of the zodiac was dedicated to the pig. 

But what about the cat?

The cat and the rat had supposedly made a pact to go to the race together. The cat decided to take a quick nap to boost his energy, and asked the rat to wake him up before the race. When the time came, the sly rat realised that the cat represented more competition, and so left him to sleep. Thus the cat never made it to the race, never became part of the Chinese zodiac, and to this day cats still hate rats because of it!

The Zodiac System

While it is relatively easy to figure out which animal sign your birth year belongs to, the zodiac system isn’t quite as simple as it may first seem. While the year you were born in denotes the animal that people perceive you as being or how you present yourself, there are also zodiac animals assigned to the month, day, and hour of your birth. Your month animal is your “inner animal”, your day animal is your “true animal”, and your hour animal is your “secret animal”. The closer to the time of birth, the more characteristics of that animal you will truly have. 

Therefore a person could be born in the Year of the Dragon, but they might also be a Snake internally, an Ox truly, and a Dog secretively. This means that they appear to be like a Dragon, but deep down they are actually much more like a Dog.

As if that wasn’t complex enough, the 12-year animal cycle is also part of a wider 60-year elemental cycle, revolving around the Five Elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood. For example, while you and your mother may have both been born in the Year of the Dog, people born in 1970 are Metal Dogs, while those born in 1994 are Wood Dogs. 

In essence, you take on the characteristics of not only your animal sign, but also your elemental sign. Metal Dogs will exhibit more firmness, rigidity, persistence, strength, and determination than other Dogs, while Wood Dogs have strength but also flexibility, alongside warmth, generosity, co-operation, and an idealistic nature.

If you want to know more about what zodiac sign you belong to and what that means, be sure to check out our individual articles on each of the 12 zodiac animals. You’ll find everything you need to know about your sign’s characteristics, compatibility, suitable occupations, and future prospects. That being said, it is important not to take your zodiac sign too seriously. After all, no matter what any fortune teller might say, you are in control of your own destiny!

The Rat / The Ox / The Tiger / The Rabbit

The Dragon / The Snake / The Horse / The Sheep/Goat

The Monkey / The Rooster / The Dog / The Pig