The Origins of the Chinese Zodiac

Graphic of Chinese Zodiac animals

In Chinese astrology, the year in which a person is born is considered the most important factor in determining their personality and their fate in life, playing an integral part of Chinese culture. Every lunar year is associated with one of twelve animals – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig – with the cycle repeating, in the same order, every twelve years. So what are the origins of the Chinese Zodiac?

The Silk Road Theory

While there are a few theories that establish the origins of the Chinese Zodiac, one is linked to the ancient Silk Road – a network of trade routes, established by China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), that connected Europe, the Middle and Far East. It is said that Buddhists brought the twelve animals of the Zodiac to China along this route, with each animal subsequently positioned as the main symbol for each year.

The Great Race

A more popular theory explaining the origins of the Chinese Zodiac is linked to the folk tale of the ‘Great Race’. According to legend, the Jade Emperor (玉皇), who was considered to be the ruler of heaven in Chinese mythology, summoned the animals of the kingdom to take part in a swimming race across a river. The order in which the animals completed the race would determine the succession in which years would be named after each one.

Twelve animals took part in the race. The cunning rat gained the support and strength of the ox, who carried the rat across the river. Just before reaching the other side, the rat leapt from the ox’s back to land on the bank, winning first place and putting the ox second. The remaining animals made their way across the river – the tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster and dog respectively – with the pig coming last as he had too much to eat and dozed off before the race began.

Take a look at this fun, visual representation of the race from TedEd:

The characteristics of the Zodiac

  • Rat (鼠 / Shǔ): organised, smart, resourceful and ambitious
  • Ox (牛 / Niu): hard-working, responsible, patient and stubborn
  • Tiger (虎 / Hǔ): independent, confident, idealistic and thrill-seeking
  • Rabbit (兔 / Tù): compassionate, sensitive, polite and timid
  • Dragon (龙 / Lóng): adventurous, charismatic, generous and impatient
  • Snake (蛇 / Shé): determined, clever, alluring and calculating
  • Horse (马 / Mǎ): enthusiastic, energetic, independent and opportunistic
  • Goat (羊 / Yang): creative, mild-mannered, cheerful and impulsive
  • Monkey (猴 / Hóu): curious, intelligent, entertaining and unpredictable
  • Rooster (鸡 / Jī): hard-working, practical, charitable and argumentative
  • Dog (狗 / Gǒu): loyal, generous, honest and anxious
  • Pig (猪 / Zhū): logical, outgoing, caring and materialistic

The five elements (五行)

The philosophy of the Five Elements (wǔxíng) also corresponds with the animal of your birth year. According to Chinese philosophy, these elements are believed to be the major influencing energies of everything in the universe. Each year is associated with one of the five energies, with the full Zodiac cycle taking 60 years as it rotates through all twelve animals and each corresponding energy.

  • Metal (金 / jīn): associated with rationality and willpower. Assigned to years that end with 0 or 1.
  • Water (水 / shuǐ): associated with persuasion and resourcefulness. Assigned to years that end with 2 or 3.
  • Wood (木 / mù): associated with creativity and spontaneity. Assigned to years that end with 4 or 5.
  • Fire (火 / huǒ): associated with passion and intensity. Assigned to years that end with 6. or 7.
  • Earth (土 / tǔ): associated with honesty and determination. Assigned to years that end with 8 or 9.
Diagram of the Five Elements

Your unlucky year

A common misconception is that ‘your year’ (i.e. the return of the year of the animal sign under which you were born) brings luck – but in fact, it is quite the opposite. Named Ben Ming Nian (本命年), there is a superstition that people in their zodiac year offend Tai Sui – a celestial body known as the God of Age – and that extra care should be taken to avoid misfortunes and accidents. Some suggested ways for avoiding conflict during Ben Ming Nian include dressing in the lucky colour red or wearing precious jewels such as crystal and jade. Take a look at some more ideas for escaping bad luck during Ben Ming Nian.

Traditions on Chinese New Year’s Eve

Key symbols of Chinese New Year

The importance of colours in Chinese culture