The Chinese Zodiac

Differently from the countries that use the Gregorian calendar, in the period that goes from the end of January to the first half of February, China (and most of the Asian countries) celebrates New Year: now, in 2023, we are entering the Year of the Rabbit.

But have you ever asked yourself why these specific animals were chosen?

The Chinese Zodiac

The Chinese Zodiac, also known as the Sheng Xiao, is an ancient system of divination used to represent the years in the Chinese calendar. It is based on a cycle of 12 animal signs and each one of them is believed to have its unique characteristics and traits, which are passed down to people born in the year of that animal. The Chinese Zodiac is not only used to represent the years, but also to predict people’s fortunes and personalities, as well as to provide insight into one’s strengths and weaknesses.

There are different legends that explain how the Chinese zodiac was invented: some talk about Buddha as the main figure, while others talk about the Jade Emperor, the ruler of all gods in Chinese mythology. We will take as reference the most common one, as all the stories end with the same result.

The story

The story begins with the Jade Emperor who, wanting to create a way to measure time, decided to invite all the animals of the world to come to his palace. To reach the palace all the animals needed to cross a river.
“An ancient folk story called the “Great Race” tells that the Jade Emperor decreed that the years on the calendar would be named after each one of the animals who arrived first, in the order they reached him. To get there, the animals had to cross a river.

Cat, Rat and Ox

The Cat and the Rat were not good at swimming, but they were both quite intelligent. They decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hop on the back of the Ox. The Ox, being kindhearted and naïve, agreed to carry them both across. As the Ox was about to reach the other side of the river, the Rat pushed the Cat into the water, then jumped off the Ox and rushed to the Jade Emperor. It was chosen to be the first animal of the zodiac calendar. The Ox had to settle for the second place.


The third one to come was the Tiger. Even though it was strong and powerful, it explained to the Jade Emperor that the currents were pushing it downstream.


Suddenly, from a distance came a thumping sound, and the Rabbit arrived. It explained how it had crossed the river: by jumping from one stone to another, in a nimble way. Halfway through the river, it had almost lost the race, but it was lucky enough to grab hold of a floating log that later carried it to the shore. For that, it became the fourth animal in the zodiac cycle.


In the fifth place, there was the flying Dragon. The Jade Emperor wondered why such a swift airborne creature like the Dragon did not arrive first. The Dragon explained that it had had to stop by a village and to bring rain for all the people, and therefore it had been held back. Then, on its way to the finish, it had seen the helpless Rabbit clinging onto a log, so it had done a good deed and had given a puff of breath to the poor creature so that it could have landed on the shore. The Jade Emperor was astonished by the Dragon’s good nature, and it was nominated as the fifth animal.


As soon as The Jade Emperor did it, a galloping sound was heard, and the Horse appeared. Hidden on the Horse’s hoof was the Snake, whose sudden appearance frightened the Horse, who fell back. For this reason, the Snake took the sixth spot while the Horse placed seventh.

Goat, Monkey and Rooster

After a while, the Goat, the Monkey, and the Rooster came to the heavenly gate. With combined efforts, they had managed to arrive to the other side of the river. The Rooster had found a raft, and the Monkey and the Goat had tugged and pulled it, trying to get all the weeds out of the way. The Jade Emperor was pleased with their teamwork and decided to pick the Goat as the eighth animal, followed by the Monkey and then the Rooster.


The eleventh animal of the zodiac cycle was the Dog. Although it should have been the best swimmer and runner, it spent its time playing in the water. Its explanation for being late was that it needed a good bath after a long spell. For that, it almost did not make it to the finish line.


Right when the Emperor was going to end the race, an “oink” sound was heard: it was the Pig. The Pig had felt hungry in the middle of the race, so it had stopped, eaten something, and then had fallen asleep. After waking up, it finished the race in the twelfth place and so it was the last animal to arrive.

The cat eventually drowned and failed to be in the zodiac. It is said that this is the reason why cats always hunt rats and also hate water as well.” – to quote all of this

A variation of this story says that the animals fought over their place on the calendar. To fairly resolve the conflict, the gods had them race across a river. The order of the animals on the calendar reflects the ranking of the race—the rat arriving first and the pig finishing last.

Although Buddhism is quoted in most of the stories, probably the Chinese Zodiac predates Buddhism – which has later integrated its elements inside the story.

Here there is a video that shows you the legend of the Chinese zodiac:


Each animal is believed to have its own unique characteristics and traits, like the mouse that is considered to be quick-witted, as it used the ox as a means of transport and then jumped right before the palace to be the first one to arrive, after having betrayed the cat. People believe that specific characteristics are passed down to people born in the year of a specific animal. For example, people born in the year of the rat are said to be clever and quick-witted, while those born in the year of the ox are said to be hardworking and dependable.

The lunar calendar

The Chinese Zodiac is closely tied to the Chinese lunar calendar, which is based on the cycles of the moon. The lunar year typically begins between late January and early February, depending on the phase of the moon. Each lunar year is associated with one of the 12 animals of the zodiac, and the cycle of the 12 animal signs repeats every 12 years. This means that people born in the same year will have the same zodiac sign, regardless of the month they were born in.

Moreover, the element associated with a person’s birth year (such as wood, fire, earth, metal, or water) can provide additional information about the person’s personality and potential fortunes. The interactions between the zodiac sign and the element can also indicate positive or negative influences in the person’s life. Additionally, the twelve Chinese zodiac signs are also divided into four groups of three, each of them corresponding to one of the four cardinal directions: East, West, North, and South. Each one of these groups also has a ruling planet, which also influences the individual’s fate and personality.

Chinese astrology

In Chinese astrology, the five elements, or Wu Xing, play a central role in determining a person’s fortune. Each one of the 12 zodiac signs is associated with one of the five elements, and the interactions between the signs and the elements can indicate positive or negative influences in a person’s life.

The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each element represents a different energy and has its own set of characteristics and influences. For example, wood represents growth and development, while the fire represents passion and ambition. The interactions between the elements can also indicate positive or negative influences in a person’s life.

The Chinese Zodiac is also used in many other aspects of Chinese culture, such as in art, literature, and even in the design of buildings and other structures. The zodiac animals are often depicted in Chinese artwork and can be found on everything, from pottery and statues to textiles and jewelry. They are also commonly used in the decoration of buildings and other structures, such as the placement of the animal signs on the eaves of temples or the use of zodiac-themed tile patterns.

Did you know about this? What are your thoughts about these incredible traditions?