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The Year of the Rat: Chinese Zodiac

When you think Chinese New Year, what’s the first animal that comes to mind? My guess is that for many that would be a dragon. Possibly because that is an animal generally associated with China, next to the panda. Whereas I’d say the panda is a more modern symbol of China, dragons have played a part in China’s traditions for millennia.

But if you do a quick Google search for Chinese New Year, you will see a lot of rats showing up this year. Chinese New Year doesn’t belong to the dragon, only once every twelve years it does. 2020 belongs to the Rat. In total there are twelve animals who all get their time to shine once every twelve years to bring fortune (or misfortune) to people born in the year of a certain animal. They are the Twelve Chinese Zodiac Animals.

In the western astrology, people are born under a certain zodiac sign, determined by which constellation the sun passes during the time of birth. The Chinese zodiac is nor linked to constellations or the sun, but to the twelve Earthly Branches (which are actually determined by the equinox of Jupiter). To read more about the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, check this article about the history of the Chinese Calendar.

The Chinese Zodiac, the Heavenly Stems and the Earthly Branches were used to count years, months, days and hours, but nowadays the zodiac is mostly used to count years. Just as in western astrology, the Chinese zodiac sign you were born under, determines big parts of your personality and luck. But in western astrology, you aren’t only influenced by your sun sign, but also the signs of the constellations, the moon and the position of the planets when you were born. In Chinese astrology, the animal sign of the month, day and hour you were born under also represent parts of you (resp. called your inner animal, true animal and secret animal).

The History of the Chinese Zodiac

So, which are these twelve lucky animals that got the honour to be in the zodiac? When was this system invented? Why did the rat get to be in the zodiac, but not the cat?

The first question is easy to answer. The twelve animals from the zodiac are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat (or sheep), monkey, rooster, dog and pig. See the table below for their correspondences.

Animal

Chinese

Pinyin

Branch

Yinyang

Element

Rat (Mouse)

shǔ

Zǐ 子

Yang

Water

Ox

niú

Chou 丑

Yin

Earth

Tiger

Yín 寅

Yang

Wood

Rabbit

Mǎo 卯

Yin

Wood

Dragon

lóng

chén辰

Yang

Earth

Snake

shé

Sì 巳

Yin

Fire

Horse

Wǔ 午

Yang

Fire

Goat

(Sheep)

yáng

Wèi 未

Yin

Earth

Monkey

hóu

Shēn 申

Yang

Metal

Rooster

Yǒu 酉

Yin

Metal

Dog

gǒu

Xū 戌

Yang

Earth

Pig

zhū

Hài 亥

Yin

Water

The first calendar, which made use of the Stems and Branches, was said to be invented by the Yellow Emperor (2697 BC), but evidence of the zodiac animals dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).  It wasn’t until the sixth century that the zodiac became popular as a means of telling one’s birth year. Tough the Stem and Branches system was used long before that, the system was too complicated for the simple peasants, and use of animal names became practice to make it a bit more understandable and entertaining for the common people.

The facts about why the rat is included but not the cat, have actually become lost over time. There are different theories where the choice of zodiac animals came from, some scholars claim that it came from ancient Chinese tradition, others claim from Buddhists from India, travellers from the Silk Road or from nomadic tribes.

History gets lost over time, but what doesn’t get lost through the ages, are myths and legends. And the myth about the twelve Chinese zodiac animals is definitely a lot more entertaining than the history would be anyway.

 

The Great Race

Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor – the emperor of the Chinese Heavens – decided to hold a race for all animals in the universe to determine which animals would get the honour to be on the zodiac calendar, and in which order. The first twelve animals that crossed the river and arrived at the palace of Heaven first, would get a placement.

* in some versions it was Buddha instead of the Jade Emperor or the attendance to a banquet instead or meeting of a race

chinese zodiac painting rat

1st Place: Rat

Rat was small, smart and fast, but unfortunately, Rat was one of the worst swimmers of the universe. But lucky for Rat, his best friend the Ox was a great swimmer. When nearing the riverbank, Ox saw that Rat could not cross the river, and offered Rat a ride on its head. After they crossed the river, the Jade Emperor first saw the Rat sitting on Ox’ head, and named Rat the winner of the race.

* in an alternative version, Rat played a dirty trick to win; Rat jumped on Ox’ back without Ox noticing and jumped off its head after crossing the river, thus winning the race.

Another version includes the cat, which you can read more about below.

chinese zodiac painting ox

2nd Place: Ox

Ox was one of the strongest animals, and a good swimmer. Ox was actually going to finish the race first, but because Ox’s friendly nature, it helped its friend the Rat cross the river, getting in second place itself. Due to Ox’ peaceful and dependable nature, it did not mind and accepted that Rat got the first place.

* instead of friendly, Ox was too gullible or dim-witted and did not notice the trickster Rat climbing on its back in alternative versions

chinese zodiac painting Tiger

3rd Place: Tiger

Tiger was fierce, passionate and very powerful and was also going strong in the race until the river. The river’s strong currents were a challenge for Tiger, who wasn’t the best swimmer. Tiger got weighted down by its wet coat and strong muscles and was exhausted by the swim, but due to its strong determination and stamina, Tiger reached the finish third.

chinese zodiac painting rabbit

4th Place: Rabbit

The swift and smart Rabbit was only a bit behind Tiger, despite its small size. The smart Rabbit had found a trail of rocks leading across the river and hopped from stone to stone. But halfway through the river, the trail ended and poor and quiet Rabbit got stuck, having to watch Tiger climb ashore. As luck would have it, a log just drifted by, and Rabbit took its chance and jumped on it. A sudden wind blew Rabbit to shore and guaranteeing Rabbit the 4th place. Little did the lucky Rabbit know, that it was Dragon who was just behind Rabbit who blew the log towards Rabbit and gave Rabbit the last push in its back to get to shore.

chinese zodiac painting dragon

5th Place: Dragon

The mightiest and most majestic of all animals, the flying Dragon, came in fifth. The Jade Emperor was surprised and asked how a flying animal would not be the first to arrive. Dragon explained that it stopped on the way to help a village in need. Their crops had been on fire and Dragon helped them extinguish the fire. Dragon also explained how he helped little rabbit who was stuck on a rock in the river. The Jade Emperor knew the benevolent nature of the Dragon and was very pleased.

* alternatively, the Dragon told he stopped to create rain for all people and creatures on Earth.

chinese zodiac painting snake

chinese zodiac painting horse

6th Place: Snake

7th Place: Horse

Immediately after Dragon came the fast galloping Horse. Water splashed up as Horse crossed the water without problems. With the utmost focus, Horse went for the finish line. But just a few leaps from the finish, Snake appeared from the grass between Horse’s hooves and slithered past. Horse got startled and pranced while Snake took the 6th place, leaving Horse the 7th place. The Jade Emperor praised Snake’s cleverness, and Horse learned not to let fear stop her ever again.

* in other versions, Snake is a lot more sneaky, coiling itself around the hoof (or hidden in the hoof) of Horse. Horse being so focused on its gallop and goal didn’t notice Snake hitching a ride.

 

 

chinese zodiac painting goat

chinese zodiac painting monkey

chinese zodiac painting rooster

8th Place: Goat

9th Place: Monkey

10th Place: Rooster

Having a great time together on a raft, were the friendly Goat, the playful Monkey and the chatty Rooster. Rooster had found the raft nearby the shore and Goat and Monkey helped tug the raft to the river. With their combined teamwork, they paddled the raft to the other side. The Jade Emperor was proud of how they bonded, and named Goat the 8th, Monkey the 9th and Rooster the 10th place.

* some say that Monkey and Rooster let Goat go first because of its gentle and comforting nature, which helped all of them bond together

chinese zodiac painting dog

11th Place: Dog

The river was no problem at all for the water-loving Dog. On the contrary, Dog enjoyed the river so much, that it forgot the time. Dog was relishing the fresh water and played around a bit. When Dog realized the time, Dog hastily went for the finish. When the Emperor asked why it was coming so late, Dog explained it just hadn’t had a bath in a while and took a bit longer.

chinese zodiac painting pig

12th Place: Pig

At last, the last animal to come over the finish, was the Pig. Normally also fast, the Jade Emperor was surprised Pig took so long. Pig apologized and explained how it got hungry on the way and had to get some food, after which Pig promptly fell asleep. After the nap Pig speeded up and made it in time to finish 12th.

chinese zodiac painting cat

13th Place: Cat

After the race was concluded, one more animal arrived. It was the Cat. The Cat was actually the first to hear the news of the race, and immediately told its friend Rat about it. The two friends decided to go together. But on the day of the race, Rat didn’t wake Cat, resulting in Cat oversleeping all morning and coming in 13th. Cat never forgave Rat for not waking him up, and ever since then, Cats and Rats are no longer friends.

* Another version is that Cat and Rat did join the race together. They even sneaked up to Ox’ back together. But just before the finish Cat fell off into the river and Rat made it first. Some even say Rat pushed Cat. Because Cat hates water, he almost drowned. In Vietnam the Cat was luckier and made it into the Vietnamese Zodiac. Though Cat fell off Buffalo’s back (or got pushed off...), it made 4th place, because Vietnamese Cats can swim. Rabbit did not make it in Vietnam.

 

And so, the twelve animals for the zodiac were determined.

 

We wish you all a Happy Year of the Rat!

 

If you want to read more about Spring Festival, check this article for Spring Festival Customs. Or read about the infamous Spring Festival Crush or how Kunming is during Spring Festival.

 

Further Reading about Chinese Holidays:

The Dragon Boat Festival

Tomb Sweeping Day

Mid-Autumn Day

China's Peak Seasons

National Holiday Travel Tips