The Origins of the Chinese Zodiac

It's More than Just Your Sign

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The well-trodden (no pun intended) story of the Chinese zodiac is cute, but a bit trite. The tale usually begins with the Jade Emperor, or Buddha, depending on the teller, who summoned all the animals of the universe for a race, or a banquet, depending on the teller. The 12 animals of the zodiac all headed to the palace. The order that they came in determined the order of the zodiac. The order is as follows:

Rat: (1984, 1996, 2008, add 12 years for each subsequent year)
Ox: (1985, 1997, 2009)
Tiger: (1986, 1998, 2010)
Rabbit: (1987, 1999, 2011)
Dragon: (1976, 1988, 2000)
Snake: (1977, 1989, 2001)
Horse: (1978, 1990, 2002)
Ram: (1979, 1991, 2003)
Monkey: (1980, 1992, 2004)
Chicken: (1981, 1993, 2005)
Dog: (1982, 1994, 2006)
Pig: (1983, 1995, 2007)

During the journey, however, the animals got involved in everything from high jinx to heroism.

For example the rat, who won the race, only did so through guile and trickery: it jumped onto the back of the ox and won by a nose. The snake, apparently also a little sneaky, hid on the hoof of a horse in order to cross a river. When they got to the other side, it scared the horse and beat it in the contest. The dragon, however, proved to be honorable and altruistic. By all accounts, the dragon would have won the race as it could fly, but it had stopped to help villagers caught in a flooding river cross safely, or it stopped to assist the rabbit in crossing the river, or it stopped to help create rain for a drought-ridden farmland, depending on the teller.

Actual History of the Zodiac

The actual history behind the Chinese zodiac is much less fantastical and much harder to find. It’s known from pottery artifacts that the animals of the zodiac were popular in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), but they were also seen much earlier from artifacts from the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), a period of disunity in ancient Chinese history, as differing factions fought for control.



It’s been written that the animals of the zodiac were brought to China via the Silk Road, the same central Asian trade route that brought the Buddhist belief from India to China. But some scholars argue that the belief predates Buddhism and has origins in early Chinese astronomy that used the planet Jupiter as a constant, as its orbit around the earth took place every 12 years.

Still, others have argued that the use of animals in astrology began with nomadic tribes in ancient China who developed a calendar based on the animals they used to hunt and gather.

The scholar Christopher Cullen as written that beyond satisfying the spiritual needs of an agrarian society, the use of astronomy and astrology was also an imperative of the emperor, who had the responsibility for ensuring harmony of everything under heaven. To rule well and with prestige, one needed to be accurate in astronomical matters, Cullen wrote. Perhaps that is why the Chinese calendar, including the zodiac, became so entrenched in Chinese culture. In fact, reforming the calendar system was viewed as appropriate if political change was eminent.

Zodiac Fits With Confucianism

The belief that everyone and every animal has a role to play in society translates well with Confucian beliefs in a hierarchical society. Just as Confucian beliefs persist in Asia today alongside more modern social views, so does the use of the zodiac.

It’s been written by Paul Yip, Joseph Lee, and Y.B. Cheung that births in Hong Kong regularly increased, bucking declining trends, to coincide with the birth of a child in a dragon year.

Temporary fertility rate increases were seen in the dragon years of 1988 and 2000, they wrote. This is a relatively modern phenomenon as the same increase wasn’t seen in 1976, another dragon year.

The Chinese zodiac also serves the practical purpose of figuring out a person’s age without having to ask directly and risk offending someone.