Try asking your friends or colleagues with Chinese ancestry blood about Chinese New Year traditions and they would probably describe the festive annual event by talking about paying respect to their seniors by visiting their houses, repeating the “Gong Xi Fat Cai” phrase all day long, piles of mandarin oranges lying on top of their table and most probably getting hongbaos (a red envelope filled with money) from their elders — it’s an event the unmarried ones certainly rejoice in glory. And if you question them about Chinese Zodiacs, they probably would tell you that their families are always pumped about knowing their fengshui (a pseudoscience originating from China) according to their horoscope on this year of the Pig. But try asking them about the origins of Chinese Zodiacs and it would hold their tongues at an instance.  

Well, the conception starts with many versions, but leaves the strong one behind that is of The Great Race. According to the folktale, 相 (shǔxiang), meaning the animal assigned to the birth year, were animals that lived under the ruling of the yùdì or known as the Jade Emperor. One day, the Jade Emperor wanted to construct a way to measure time, so he organized a race. The animals would race across the river and the first 12 animals to step across the river would earn a spot in the zodiac, in the order they arrived.

Rat woke up as early as possible, remembering that this was the day of the race, and got a head start. Rat smiled wickedly to himself, knowing that his neighbor, the Cat, was already behind him as he left the furred creature without informing him while Rat was supposed to wake him up. Rat thought this was an opportunity open wide for a revenge. He never liked the way Cat always bullied him though Rat never said it out loud. Unfortunately for the sleepyhead, Cat didn’t wake up until the race was over — he was not able to make it into the cycle. A great enmity grew between Cat and Rat, so that rats scatter in all directions when a cat appears.

When Rat made it to the river, he noticed the swift currents and became downhearted not knowing what to do. But after some time waiting, Ox came with a cape to save the day. He speedily climbed unto the Ox’s ear and plunge into the river along the Ox. Though feeling the weight of Rat on his ears, Ox simply didn’t mind and continue the journey. After coming to the other side of the river, Rat sneakily jumped out of Ox’s ear and managed to finish the race, claiming 1st place, while Ox came in 2nd place.

Tiger and Rabbit claimed the 3rd and 4th place respectively owing to their rapid movements and ambitions, but Tiger was faster, thus coming ahead of Rabbit. Rabbit used stones and logs on the river and hop on them to make it to the other side of the river.

The 5th place was owned by the dragon, which surprised the Jade Emperor because she could’ve flown easily across the river. When he asked the reason, Dragon told him that she had to help the other animals cross the river before finally marking her place on 5th place.

Horse galloped across the river ambitiously but got startled by the snake just as she got across the river, letting the snake slithered into 6th place. Horse, of course, claimed 7th place.

The sheep, monkey and rooster were spotted by the Jade Emperor, crossing the river on top of a raft. The trio worked together in harmony to reach the other side of the river. When they finally made it across, they all agreed on giving the 8th place to sheep who was the most comforting and harmonious among the three of them. The 9th and 10th place came to the monkey and rooster respectively.

Next was the dog, who was a great swimmer but was too absorbed in his laziness. He bought some time to swim on the river, leaving him becoming the 11th animal to arrive.

The last one was – unexpectedly – the pig, who took some time to eat and nap after being quite hungry along the way.

As the great folktale comes to an end, that explains how the Jade Emperor finally got the order to associate one of the animals in this order to each year, with the cycle repeating every sixty years. Why sixty and not twelve you ask? Well, actually the race that the Jade Emperor made for the twelve animals, only determined one of the 2 systems in the Chinese traditional calendar. The animals of the zodiacs are afterwards called The Twelve Earthly Branches or 十二地 (shíērdìzi). Another system that is eventually known is called the Ten Heavenly Stems or 十天干(shítiāngān). This system contains 5 classical elements which is wood (huǒ), fire (mù), metal (xīn), earth (tu), water (shuǐ). Each element is classified again into 2 different groups – Yin and Yang – creating a ten-year cycle. With these 2 systems combined, it creates 60 years of different combination which is known as The Sexagenary Cycle or干支 (gānzhī).

Picture taken from Wikipedia
Relationship between sexagenary cycle and recent Common Era years

Let’s say you were born on the year 1998, you would have the sign of Yang Earth Tiger. But someone born on this year would have the sign of Yin Earth Pig. Another fun fact is that you can also have inner animal based on your birth month, a true animal based on your birth date and a secret animal based on your birth hour.

As the system spreads throughout Asia, the determined animals on the Chinese Zodiacs becomes modified to reflect a certain community in a region. You can go to Vietnam and try talking about Chinese Zodiacs with them and found out that your zodiac is a cat and not a rabbit. So whether if you have big or small credence in these zodiacs, it certainly portrays where your culture comes from.

Words By: Charissa Andriani


Header Credits: holoong.com