What exactly is the Chinese zodiac? For those who are not familiar, it consists of twelve animals based on Chinese astrology.

In the past, it was used to keep track of years, months, and days in the lunar calendar. In the modern day, it is used to determine one’s birth year and the beliefs associated with the animal of that year.

Zodiac Signs and Lunar New Year

The twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac

Chinese zodiac signs are one of the first things to come to mind when thinking of the Lunar New Year. This indicates just how important the twelve animals are when it comes to the New Year.

While many people are familiar with what the twelve zodiac signs are, the history and mythology surrounding them are not discussed as often. Let’s learn how the Chinese Zodiac came to be!

History of the Chinese Zodiac

The actual history surrounding the Chinese zodiac is shrouded in mystery. It was founded in the early phases of Chinese civilization and development.

It is commonly believed that the zodiac came to be in the fifth century B.C., the Zhan Guo period. However it was only officially acknowledged during the Han Dynasty.

The years associated with the Chinese zodiac signs

Some historians believe that the zodiac emerged from the Silk Road, along with Buddhism. It wasn’t until the North Zhou Dynasty in the late 500s A.D. that the zodiac was used the way it is today: to ascertain your birth year.

Mythology Origins: Race to the Heavenly Gates

There are a couple of retellings of the Chinese zodiac story, but two stand out as the most common.

In the first, the Jade Emperor ignites a race across a river. He proclaims that the calendar years would be named after the order of the animals that reach him at the heavenly gates.

The Twelve Animals on their way to the Heavenly Gates

In the second, Buddha invites the animals to a banquet. Thus the calendar years are named after the first twelve animals that reached him.

After this introduction of the reason for the race, the rest of the story stays relatively the same.

First and Second Place: Rat and Ox

The Ox carrying the Cat and the Rat

 The river posed a problem for both the Cat and the Rat, neither of whom could swim. With clever thinking, they convinced the kind but gullible Ox to carry them across on its back.

However in the last second, the Rat pushed the Cat into the water and jumped ahead of the Ox, making it the first zodiac animal. The Ox followed up closely as the second animal to finish the race.

The traits typically associated with the Rat are persuasive, intelligent, cunning and sharp. These are quite obvious from the story. The Ox is considered dependable, strong, stubborn and hard working.

But you may be wondering, what happened to the Cat? After getting pushed into the river, the Cat drowned and could not become a zodiac animal. Interestingly enough, this is considered the reason cats hunt mice and have an aversion to water.

Third and Fourth Place: Tiger and Rabbit

The Tiger

Next up was the Tiger, who while strong and formidable, struggled against the strong current. The Rabbit followed up close behind because of its swiftness and agile jumping. It crossed the river by hopping from stone to stone.

However the Rabbit actually almost fell into the river on the way but was fortunate enough to wash ashore. We will soon learn that this good fortune did not come from nowhere, but from a kind soul who aided the Rabbit across.

The Rabbit

The Tiger is considered strong, brave, hot-tempered and authoritative. The Rabbit is considered popular, elegant, kind and sincere.

Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Place: Dragon, Snake and Horse

Surprisingly, the fifth place went to the Dragon. Even the Jade Emperor questioned how such a strong flying animal failed to come first.

The Dragon explained that it had paused mid-race to help a flooding village. It then stopped again to blow the Rabbit, who was floating in the river, to shore.

The Dragon

Those born in the year of the Dragon are perceived as confident, fearless and benevolent.

As the most revered of the zodiac animals, some families actually plan births around the years of the Dragon. In fact, Hong Kong saw an uptick in birth rates in 2000 because of the luck associated with the animal. I’m actually a Dragon baby myself!

        The Snake

Sixth was the Snake, who, like the Rat, hitched a ride on a stronger animal. In this case, the Snake hid on the Horse’s hoof and upon reaching the shore, scared the Horse back and slithered ahead. This made the Horse the seventh zodiac animal.

The Snake is seen as wise, charming, jealous and analytical. The Horse is seen as energetic, active, impatient and independent.

Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Place: Goat, Monkey and Rooster

From here, the Goat, Monkey and Rooster collaborated to help each other reach the gate.

The Rooster found a makeshift raft while the Goat and Monkey pulled all three of them onshore. The Goat, Monkey and Rooster came in eighth, ninth and tenth place respectively.

        Collaboration between the Goat, Monkey and Rooster

The Goat is regarded as calm, gentle, creative and bashful. The Monkey is regarded as smart, curious, energetic and cheerful. The Rooster is regarded as courageous, practical, honest and observant.

Eleventh and Twelfth Place: Dog and Pig

            The Dog

Eleventh place went to the Dog, for a reason pretty characteristic of our canine friends. Distracted by the water, the Dog decided to play around in the river before reaching the gate.

Finally, the last zodiac animal is the Pig. The Pig stopped mid-race to eat and then take a nap before crossing the river.

Those born in the Year of the Dog are considered honest, faithful, patient and sensitive. Those born in the Year of the Pig are considered loving, cultured, generous and intelligent.

The Chinese Zodiac Race

From this mythological story surrounding the Chinese zodiac animals, it is evident how each animal utilized its strengths and weaknesses to get the place they ended in.

From the clever Rat to the fun-loving Dog, this legend denotes the iconic qualities of each calendar year zodiac and the people born in them.

2022: Year of the Tiger

Year of the Tiger, 2022

With 2022 being the Year of the Tiger, let’s go over auspicious traits to keep an eye out for.

Lucky numbers are one, three and seven. Lucky colors are green and blue. However, the color white and the numbers four and nine will bring bad fortune.

Of course, these predictions are not set in stone, but keep them in mind when assembling your wardrobe for the year.

Additionally, it is believed that adversities are drawn to people when it is the year of their zodiac sign. This is because of the vindictive god Tai Sui. Thus it is pertinent to partake in customs to protect yourself from bad luck.

Wearing red clothing purchased for you by friends or family, helps in warding off evil spirits. Including jade jewelry such as earrings or pendants will also keep bad fortune at bay.

Another way to maintain good fortune is to face your furniture away from the position of Tai Sui. For the Year of the Tiger, you should face away from the northeast.

After learning the myth of the origins of the Chinese zodiac, are you able to see some of your own qualities and features in your zodiac animal?



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Vivian Ma

Vivian Ma is a Baruch College graduate with a degree in marketing and film. Vivian is fluent in Cantonese and has been taking Japanese for 4 years with an interest in Asian culture in media and entertainment!