The Whimsical Legend of How the Chinese Zodiac Animals were Chosen
According to Chinese culture, each year is related to an animal or 生肖 (‘Sheng Xiao’, which literally means ‘birth likeness’). There are 12 animals, and together, they make up the Chinese zodiac. The traditional sequence of the Chinese zodiac is: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Like the zodiac signs of Western astrology, it is also traditionally believed by the Chinese that one’s personality is influenced by the zodiac sign that he/she was born under, and that the sign has a bearing on a person’s life.
Myths and Legends of the Origin of the Zodiac Signs
Unlike the zodiac signs of Western astrology, the animals of the Chinese zodiac are not based on the constellations. Whilst the Western zodiac signs may be said to have its origins in astronomy, the same might not be said of its Chinese counter-part. In fact, it may be said that no one is entirely certain as to how the Chinese zodiac actually came into being.
Representations of the zodiac signs on ancient Chinese artifacts were already in existence during the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). Some have suggested that these signs entered China via the Silk Road, perhaps alongside Buddhism when it was spread from India.
Painting of Buddhist astrology (combining Chinese and Indian systems). ( CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Others claim that the signs were first used by nomadic tribes, who developed a calendar based on the animals they used to hunt and gather. Yet others claim that the zodiac was developed based not on knowledge brought from outside China, but by the ancient Chinese themselves.
Daoist (Taoist) symbols carved in stone: yin-yang and animals of the Chinese zodiac. Qingyanggong temple, Chengdu, Sichuan, China. ( Felix Andrews/CC BY SA 3.0 )
A more fanciful and colorful (though perhaps less historical factual) can be found in a well-known Chinese myth. According to this myth (which has numerous variations), the Jade Emperor (the supreme deity in the traditional Chinese pantheon) summoned all the animals in the universe for a race.
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In some versions of the story, the Jade Emperor is replaced with the Buddha. Also, some versions have the race substituted with a banquet. Regardless, the prize for the first 12 animals that arrived was their induction into the zodiac. The order of their arrival determined their place in this cycle.
16th century ink, color, and gold on silk image of the Jade Emperor. Museum of fine Arts, Boston. (Public Domain )
There are a number of stories relating to the journey of the animals to the palace of the Jade Emperor / abode of the Buddha. For example, the Rat was the first animal to arrive thanks to its cunning nature. Towards the end of the race, there was a river that the animals needed to cross. As the Rat could not swim, it decided to hitch a ride on the back of the Ox without it knowing. Once they crossed the river, the Rat jumped off the Ox’s back, and made it to the finishing line first.
An alternate version of the story focuses instead on the benevolence of the Ox, who saw that the Rat could not cross the river, and offered it a ride on its back. Another story that portrays altruism is the explanation for the Dragon’s position as the fifth sign. As it could fly, the Dragon should have easily won the race. During the course of the race, however, the Dragon met with people who were in trouble (villagers caught in a flood, and / or a drought killing the farmers’ crops, etc.), and decided to help them, thus making it the fifth animal in the zodiac. Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig soon followed - after their own trials to reach the finish line.
Stone funerary figurines of the Dragon, Snake, Goat and Rooster. Unearthed from the tomb of Xue Fujun at Yaojiajing in Xuanwu District, Beijing. Tang dynasty (618–907). Capital Museum, Beijing. ( BabelStone/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Some Uses of the Zodiac Today
The Chinese zodiac has played a significant role in Chinese culture, and continues to do so even today. Like the zodiac of Western astrology, it is believed by many that the zodiac signs allow a person to tell one’s fortune. Forecasts are also generally presented for all signs at the beginning of each New Year.