In the Asian horoscope there are 12 Chinese zodiac signs, which appear in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. As you can see, each sign is named after an animal (and each animal has its own unique characteristics).
The system is based on the lunar calendar, which is why Chinese New Year (or CNY) is also called Lunar New Year or even Spring Festival. The festival falls between the last week of January and the 3rd week of February. Each year has an animal attributed to it and the animal of your birth year is thought to represent how other people will see you.
12 Chinese zodiac animal signs
Do you know why the 12 Chinese zodiac animals are in the sequence of the image above? The legend below tells the tale of how the order came about, as well as explaining some characteristics of the various animals.
There are many variations of the story.
The Race for the Heavenly Gate – What are the Reasons for the Zodiac Rankings?
Long, long ago, there was no Chinese zodiac. The Jade Emperor wanted to select 12 animals to be his guards. He sent an immortal being into the world of humans to spread the message that the earlier an animal entered through the Heavenly Gate, the higher the rank it would be assigned.
Early Risers: the Quick-Witted Rat and Diligent Ox
The next morning, all the animals set off towards the Heavenly Gate. The Rat got up very early. On his way to the gate, he realised he needed to cross a river where he had to stop, owing to the swift current. After waiting a long time, the Rat noticed the Ox about to cross the river. Being quick witted, he persuaded the Ox to allow him to jump on his back.
The good-natured & diligent Ox did not mind at all (he was maybe a little naïve!) and simply continued. After crossing the river, he continued plodding towards the palace of the Jade Emperor. The Rat jumped down from his back and dashed to the feet of the Emperor, thus arriving in first place.
Consequently, the Rat is the first animal in the 12 year zodiac cycle and the Ox the second.
Competitive and Fast: the Tiger and the Rabbit
Third to arrive was the Tiger with the Rabbit coming in fourth. Although both are fast and competitive, the Tiger was faster. The Rabbit explained to the Jade Emperor that he only managed to cross the river by hopping from stone to stone before clinging to a floating log.
The Handsome Dragon and Crafty Snake
The handsome flying Dragon arrived in fifth place and was immediately noticed by the Jade Emperor. The emperor was surprised that the Dragon didn’t arrive earlier as the river was no hindrance to him. The Dragon explained that he’d stopped off to bring rain to a village where the farmers’ crops were suffering from drought and had then spotted the Rabbit half drowning on a log, so he gave a puff of wind to steer him to shore, meaning he himself was late.
There are 2 main variants as to how the Snake got his 6th place in the Chinese Zodiac. The first is that the emperor wanted to reward the Dragon for his selflessness, saying his son could be sixth. But the Dragon’s son didn’t come with him that day. The Snake suddenly came forward and pretended the Dragon was his adoptive father; thus gaining the sixth place.
The other story is that the Snake had hidden himself on the Horse’s hoof. When the Horse realised he had a snake on his hoof, he shied with shock and fright. The Snake slithered down and through the Gate into 6th place.
Kind and Modest: the Horse and Goat
One version of how the Horse got his seventh rank is the tale above with the snake. The other is that he arrived almost at the same time as the Goat. However, as they were very kind and modest, each let the other go first. The Jade Emperor saw how polite they were and ranked them seventh and eighth.
The alternative version of the story about the Goat is that he was rewarded for his teamwork for assisting the Monkey and the Rooster.
The Jumping Monkey & Resourceful Rooster
The Monkey had fallen well behind but by jumping between trees and stones, he caught up to be ninth.
One alternative version tells how the Goat, Monkey and Rooster arrived at the river more or less together and were stuck as to how to cross. The Rooster found a raft, and the Monkey and the Goat tugged and pulled, trying to get all the weeds out of the way. The Jade Emperor was so impressed with their teamwork that he ranked them eighth to tenth.
The Playful Dog and Epicurean Pig
You would think that a dog who can both run and swim well, would have been far higher up the rankings. However he’d lost time by playing in the water. According to legend, the Dog didn’t want to admit this though and told the Emperor that he’d needed a good bath before he was in a fit state to appear in front of him.
The Emperor was about to end the race, when with an “oink” the Pig arrived. He’d stopped to eat something along the way and then fallen asleep, meaning that he came in last!
These 12 animals became guards of the Heavenly Gate.
Why is There No Cat?
The story goes that although the Cat and Rat were neighbours, the Cat always bullied the Rat. This made the Rat very angry but he dared not say it out loud; therefore, he sought revenge on the Cat.
When he heard about the Race to the Heavenly Gate, the Rat chuckled to himself and thought: “This is my opportunity”.
The Cat kicked open the Rat’s door, ordering the Rat to keep him informed of when he was setting out on the race, and the Rat readily promised that he would.
On the morning of the race, however, the Rat left quietly without informing his neighbour. The sleepyhead Cat didn’t wake up until the race was over and it was too late – he was not able to make it into the Imperial Heavenly Guard, or have a place in the zodiac.
After the party, a great enmity grew between Cat and Rat, so that rats scatter in all directions when a cat appears.
An alternative version of this story says that both the Cat and the Rat got as far as crossing the river together on the Ox’s back, but the Rat pushed the hated Cat into the water where he was washed away and drowned or didn’t get back to the Heavenly Gate in time to get a ranking. This also explains why cats hate water so much.
Variations across Asia
Of course, Asia isn’t an homogenous region so there are variations about the stories and even about the animals. This basic structure though is used by many countries who have been somehow influenced by Chinese culture.
In Korea and Japan, there is specifically a Sheep rather than a Goat (see also my note below about the translations). Japan celebrates New Year on 1st January though since 1873 rather than according to the lunar calendar.
In the Vietnamese zodiac, the Ox is replaced with a Water Buffalo and instead of the Rabbit, there is a Cat. The explanation I found for this rabbit/cat swap is that the ancient word for rabbit in Vietnamese is mao which sounds also like the word for cat (meo) – however the word for cat in Mandarin is pronounced “mao” so I assume that this is a phonetic “false friend”.
Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia all replace the Dragon with the Naga which is more usual in their mythology. Malaysia also replaces the Rabbit with a Mousedeer and the Pig with a Tortoise.
There are also variations sometimes in the translation of the animals so you might hear the Rat translated as mouse, or the Goat translated as Sheep or Ram.
Effects of the 12 Chinese Zodiac Signs
People’s Personal Traits
The ranking story above is made up according to people’s understanding of various characteristics of the 12 animals. And when people talk about a person’s zodiac sign, they also think about the zodiac sign’s characteristics.
In some cases families even go so far as to do their family planning according to how auspicious the coming zodiac year will be. Consequently, you can see an uptick in the birth rate in Dragon or Pig years whilst there may be a drop in less popular years.
As with Western astrology, Chinese people later created guidelines on love compatibility of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs e.g. the Rat’s ideal partner should be a Dragon, Rabbit, or an Ox.
Celebrating the Lunar New Year
Next week I’ll take a look at different traditions as to how the Lunar New Year is celebrated in different countries. In 2021, the New Year falls on 12th February and the New Year is the Year of the Ox.
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