There are 12 zodiac animals in Chinese astrology: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. They each represent one year in the Chinese calendar, making up a cycle of 12 years.
They are also believed to endow people who were born in their years with certain personality traits. Oxen are hard-working, while Tigers are tempestuous, for example. Sometimes, Chinese people may time the birth of their child so that the baby possesses the favorable characteristics of the zodiac animal of their birth year.
Of all the animals in the world, why were these 12 chosen? How was their order decided? What characteristics does each animal signify? There is a well-known origin story for the 12 zodiac animals that Chinese children grow up being told, which they will perhaps recount to their own children. In this way, the story has been passed down through the generations for millennia.
The Heavenly Race: Origins of the Chinese Zodiac
Legend has it that back then people had no idea how to keep time. They appealed to the Jade Emperor, the ruler over the Heavenly Court of gods and goddesses who cared for everything that happened on Earth.
The benevolent emperor agreed to help. He decreed that there would be 12 years to each cycle. To make it easier for everyone to remember, he would select 12 animals to represent these years. To make the selection, the Jade Emperor announced that a river-crossing race would be held on his birthday. The first 12 animals to cross the finish line would be honored as the zodiacs.
The news caused a stir among all the animals under heaven. Every one of them wanted to be part of the zodiacs. On the day of the race, there was quite a gathering of animals at the starting line.
Rat and Ox
Among the animals was a cunning Rat who thought this was its opportunity to bring some honor to the rat family. It knew, however, that being so little and not knowing how to swim, it didn’t stand a chance against the bigger and faster animals. So Rat went to the kindly Ox and asked for a ride. In exchange, Rat offered to be a lookout and tell Ox if other animals were catching up.
Ox thought it was a good offer. Besides, that puny Rat couldn’t possibly threaten its chance to win the race. With its tenacity, Ox swam across the river ahead of the whole pack. Soon enough, they were seeing the finish line on the bank ahead. Ox thought, this is it, I will win the race and be the first zodiac animal!
Just as Ox approached land and was getting ready to struggle out of the water, Rat leapt off its back and landed across the finish line. The Jade Emperor, the gods and goddesses, and especially Ox could hardly believe their eyes: Rat won the race?
“You are so little, and you don’t know how to swim,” the Jade Emperor stated. “How did you win?”
“Not everything depends on size,” Rat answered. “I may be little, but I am smarter than all the others.”
The honest Ox could only grumble. It had agreed to Rat’s plan and there was nothing for it to do now except recognize Rat’s victory. The Jade Emperor nodded, acknowledging that the wily Rat would be forever enshrined as the first zodiac animal with the persistent Ox taking second place.
Tiger and Rabbit
Soon after, Tiger came out of the river shaking water from its fur, drenching all the gods and goddesses. Impatiently it growled, demanding to know if it was first. “Not even close!” Rat answered. Tiger was enraged and went after Rat, but Rat slipped away. Brash Tiger had to be satisfied with being the third zodiac.
Just then, Rabbit hopped across the finish line without breaking a sweat. Rabbit had hopped from one animal’s back to the next, picking its way across the river without once touching water!
Nimble Rabbit became the fourth zodiac animal.
Dragon and Snake
Dragon descended across the finish line from the sky, bringing with him a thunderstorm.
“I could have arrived much earlier,” Dragon said. “But there was a drought in the East and crops were dying! I had to help with a little rain.”
The Jade Emperor nodded in approval. Indeed, Dragon controlled rain, a responsibility he placed above all else. Selfless Dragon became the fifth zodiac animal.
The gods saw Horse, Goat and Monkey approaching. No one bothered looking down until they heard a voice on the ground. Snake had just slithered across the finish line as the other animals were getting out of the river.
“I got here before them,” sneaky Snake announced, becoming the sixth zodiac animal.
The Rest of the Animals
Horse galloped across the finish line next, rearing and almost stepping on Snake. “What number am I?” spontaneous Horse asked, and was very disappointed to find out it was only destined to be the seventh zodiac.
Goat ambled without hurry across the finish line after that, followed by Monkey and Rooster. These three were not great swimmers, but they found a piece of log and paddled across the river together.
Mild Goat became the eighth zodiac animal, resourceful Monkey became the ninth and capable Rooster the tenth.
Dog came after, surprising everyone that it took so long to cross. Apparently, Dog loved playing in the river and only just now remembered the race. Playful Dog became the eleventh zodiac animal.
There was only one more place left. The Jade Emperor craned his neck to see who the straggler would be. He waited a long time until the sun was about to set. Pig finally came out of the river, asking as soon as it did: “Did I miss lunch?”
Everyone laughed and congratulated pragmatic Pig as the twelfth zodiac animal.
Biggest Loser of All
Conspicuously missing from this list of honors was Cat, who had the habit of sleeping in. When it heard about the race, Cat went to Rat, whom it always bullied, and told Rat to wake it up early in the morning. Rat, of course, was not going to miss this opportunity for revenge! By the time Cat woke up, the race had long started and it was too late to catch up. Cat was enraged and became Rat’s biggest foe, always going after it for this immense slight.
Variations on the Chinese Zodiac Story
This origin story of the zodiacs is only a legend, but if you examine the list, you might find that it includes all the animals who were domesticated early in human history—like horse, pig, ox, and rooster—and who almost became a part of households. There was also the revered dragon, a creature with its special place in Chinese mythology, and the awe-inspiring tiger. It is said that there weren’t any cats back then in ancient China, hence its exclusion from the zodiacs.
There is another variation of this story that may better explain, from a historical perspective, why these animals were chosen. According to the Buddhist text Mahāsaṃnipāta Sutra, or the Sutra of the Great Assembly, there were 12 Heavenly Generals—protective deities that governed the four corners of the world. Each of them had an animal as their deified mount.
Governing the South: Snake, Horse, Goat; the West: Monkey, Rooster, Dog; the North: Pig, Rat, Ox; the East: Tiger, Rabbit and Dragon.
These, of course, are the exact animals of the Chinese zodiacs. Even the order is the same! Buddhism, after its arrival in China, had a profound effect on Chinese culture, so it isn’t surprising that these deified animals would come to be honored as part of the zodiacs.
Chinese New Year and the Zodiacs
Each of these zodiac animals governs a whole year, which starts at Chinese New Year according to the lunar calendar. This usually corresponds to January or February in the western calendar. When the current year has the same zodiac animal as the year you were born, you are said to be in Ben Ming Nian. Read more about what implications this has for your luck that year, a year that is believed to offend the God of Tai Sui, or Fan Tai Sui in Chinese.
In Chinese astrology, your luck for the year is calculated by first finding out what element your birth zodiac falls under, and whether that element “clashes” or “complements” the current year’s zodiac according to the Five Element Theory. Find out how lucky your zodiac is this year and what you can do to guarantee even better fortune!