Most of us are familiar with the Chinese Zodiac and how it differs from the Western Zodiac. The Chinese system is based on the lunar calendar and assigns an animal to each year within a 12-year cycle.
It is said that people born each year receive some of that year’s animal’s reputed attributes. But where does this belief come from? And how did the ancient Chinese pick the 12 animals? What do they represent? It all dates back to the Zhan Guo period (5th century BC) and the story of the Great Race.
The Chinese Zodiac and the Great Race
There are several different variations of the story behind the Chinese Zodiac but they tend to follow the same broad strokes. It all began with the Jade Emperor (a representation of China’s “first god”) who decreed that the years of the calendar would be named for each animal.
The order of the animals would be decided by the order in which the chosen animals won a race to reach him. To do this they had to cross a great river.
The Cat and the Rat, who were poor swimmers, decided their best bet was to cross the river on the back of the Ox. The big-hearted and naive Ox agreed to carry them. As the Ox was about to reach the far side of the river the Rat pushed the Cat into the river and ran to the Emperor.
This means that the Rat is the first animal in the Zodiac calendar, followed by the Ox. The Tiger came in third place. Despite its size and strength, it complained to the Jade Emperor that the currents had kept pushing it downstream as it swam over.
As the Tiger finished its explanation the party heard a thumping sound coming from the distance. This was the Rabbit approaching. Upon its arrival, the Rabbit explained how it had crossed the river by jumping from stone to stone.
At one point it had nearly fallen in but had managed to grab a log that was floating downriver. The log had washed ashore and the Rabbit had gained fourth place.
Next came the mighty Dragon. The Jade Emperor was perplexed how a winged creature had not ranked higher. The kindly Dragon explained that on its way it had stopped by a small village to give rain to its people.
Then, on its way it had spotted the Rabbit clinging to a log for dear life. The Dragon had taken it upon itself to blow the Rabbit to shore. The Emperor was impressed and granted the Dragon 5th place.
Seconds after the Dragon had been granted its place the sound of galloping could be heard. The Horse raced into view. As the Horse was about to finish a Snake appeared wrapped around the horse’s hoof.
The Horse, finally noticing its crafty passenger, fell in fear, giving the Snake a chance to claim 6th place. The horse, after righting itself, came 7th.
Next came the Goat, Monkey, and Rooster. They had worked as a team. The Rooster had found a raft and the Monkey and Goat had agreed to tug and pull the raft through the river’s weeds. The Emperor was pleased with their teamwork. The Goat was given 8th place, the Monkey 9th, and the Rooster 10th.
In 11th place was the dog. It should have been quicker, it was a fast runner and the best swimmer. However, the dog had stopped to play in the river which had delayed it (although its excuse to the Emperor was that it had stopped for a bath).
Last came the pig. Just as the Emperor was about to finish the race, the party heard an “oink”. The Pig had built up a mighty hunger during the race and had stopped halfway for a meal. Eating had made it sleepy and it had fallen asleep. Upon waking the Pig rushed to the finish line to claim 12th place.
But what of the Cat that should have been in the top three? Pushed off the Ox’s back by the Rat, it drowned in the river. It is said that this is why all cats hate water and love to hunt rats.
What do the Animals Represent?
Within the Chinese Zodiac, each animal represents different characteristics. Each animal is assigned personality traits, a natural element, and a yin/ yang designation. The nature elements were an early attempt to explain the relationship between certain aspects of the natural world while Yin and Yang represent the Chinese belief in duality; light and dark.
The Rat is associated with the Yang force and its fixed element is Water. The Rat is said to be resourceful (it drowned the cat), frugal (it rode the Ox rather than spending its energy), ambitious and talkative.
The Ox is associated with the Yin force and its element is Water. The Ox is said to be diligent, reliable (it helped the others), patient, and high-endurance (it managed to easily swim the river).
The Tiger is connected to Yang and its element is Wood. The Tiger is thought to be brave, confident, idealistic, and thrill-seeking (it swam across the river despite being almost drowned by the current).
The Rabbit is connected to Yin and its element is Wood. The Rabbit is kind, quiet, romantic, and refined (rather than swim it gracefully hopped from stone to stone).
The Dragon is associated with Yang and its element is Earth. The Dragon is said to be energetic, smart, a perfectionist, and outspoken.
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The Horse is connected to Yang and its element is Fire. The Horse is said to be playful, enthusiastic, independent (it reacted poorly to the snake), and persuasive.
The Goat sides with Yin and its element is Earth. The Goat is easygoing, empathetic, creative (it found a solution to crossing the river), and cheerful.
The Monkey is connected to Yang and its element is Metal. The Monkey was said to be funny, clever (it chose to work as a team), optimistic (it trusted its team), and spontaneous.
The Rooster is connected to Yin and its element is Metal. The Rooster is said to be charitable, loyal (it worked in a team), stable and talkative.
The Dog is on team Yang and its element is Earth. The Dog is helpful, honest, and trustworthy but timid.
Finally, the Pig is connected to Yin and its element is Water. The Pig is caring, generous, smart, and outgoing.
Whether or not someone believes in the Chinese Zodiac, the myth behind it is an enjoyable one. Today if one visits China and asks people if they believe in the Zodiac they will often profusely deny doing so, saying they are too modern.
But if we scratch beneath the surface those old superstitions are still there. Many people have strong preferences as to what sign their children will fall into. Tell someone your sign and they will often draw quick conclusions as to what your personality is like.
To historians, the Zodiac offers a fascinating view into ancient Chinese culture. In reality, the creation of the Zodiac was all to do with breaking the day, months, and years into easily recognizable units of time. The associated myth was just a story to explain its creation.
But studying this myth leads one down the fascinating rabbit hole that is ancient Chinese culture. To fully understand the Zodiac one must be familiar with the five natural elements and their reaction to each other and the Chinese belief of Yin and Yang (a system of duality far more complex than West’s good vs evil).
Top Image: The twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Source: Jakub Hałun / CC BY-SA 4.0.