Episode 41: Chinese Zodiac

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It surprises me that most non-Chinese know about their Chinese zodiac. I don’t know why but I know western horoscope is pretty popular in Asia as well. Today we will talk about Chinese zodiac.

Do you know how many animals in Chinese zodiac? How many animals can you name? For people who never heard about Chinese zodiac, ShengXiao 生肖 in Chinese, it is a classification assigning an animal to each lunar year repeating every 12 years. In China, especially the older generation, they usually wouldn’t ask “how old are you?” but “what is your zodiac” and they could quickly calculate your age. It’s interesting that I just realized there are 12 horoscopes as well. I was taught the order of the zodiac by my grandma when I was a kid. 子鼠丑牛寅虎卯兔辰龙 巳蛇午马 未羊申猴酉鸡 戌 狗亥猪 They are rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, house, goat, monkey. Rooster, dog and pig.


You might or might not recognized that I said 24 characters instead of 12. The character in front of the each animal are added, which are corresponding earthly branches 地支. The earthly branches is a system used in a lot of ancient Chinese context which was built based on the orbit of Jupiter. Ancient Chinese divided the celestial circle into 12 parts to follow the orbit of Jupiter. They can represent month, year, directions, seasons and hours, For example, in ancient China, to indicate 24 hours in a day, a earthly branch was used for two hours. Zi 子 , the first branch, represented 11pm to 1am.


There are so many versions and point of views about how the zodiac started and when. Since Qin Dynasty 秦代, 221BC ~ 207 BC around more than 2000 years, historians already found words about 12 animals on bamboo and wooden slips, which were books before the invention of paper. The animals were a little bit different though. There wasn’t dragons but worms and there were no horses but deer. However, at least from Han Dynasty 汉代, in the book LunHeng 论衡, the 12 animals were recorded as we know today. Among all the animals of in the nature, why did the Chinese pick these 12? First I think they were the most common ones in China of course except dragon, which is the only mythical animal among the 12.

In the book GuangYangZaJi广阳杂记from Qing Dynasty清朝, it says the animals were chosen referring to the time periods when they are active during the day or month according to the earthly branches. For example, Zi 子, the first branch as we mentioned earlier is 11pm ~ 1am. That’s the time period when rats are the most active. Wu午, the earthly branch is 11am ~1pm around the moon, when most animals are tired and hot under the sun and start lying down while the horses are standing still. Chen辰, representing the third month in the lunar year which is around April, is the raining season which is in charge of by the dragons. I need to explain here why the third month, since the dragon is not the third animal. This is due to the month system is started from the tiger.

There is a popular folktale about why the cat is not one of the 12? Cats are common today everywhere including China. However, originally from Egypt, cats were introduced to China later no sure when. I think this is a modern children’s story to answer kids today why the cat is not in the zodiac. The story is mainly about there was a race for all animals to compete for the 12 places in the Chinese zodiac. The rat was supposed to wake the cat up while forgot or did it on purpose. Through a tons of competitions, the animals were chosen and ordered. Since the cat missed the race because of the rat, cats hate rats and chase after them today. I mean tigers are in the cat family so broadly speaking, cats are included. In other Asian cultures, influenced by China, there are 12 zodiacs as well. Korea and Japan have the same ones, while in Vietnam, they replaced rabbits with cats.

There are a lot of superstitions theory about marriages or relationships in general, fortunetelling, personalities and etc. based on the zodiac just like the horoscopes in the west. Mainly because the each zodiacs is either Yin or Yang and represents different element in the Chinese nature five elements– wood, fire, earth, metal and water. I don’t know much about it since I am not a fortune teller. But there are some easy but sounds more ridiculous sayings people talk about. Like if a couple are a dragon and a tiger there must be one get hurt. I mean if you really want to be with another person, do you really care his or her zodiacs or horoscopes? Or girls born in the year of goat don’t have good fortune. That’s why people try to avoid getting conceived at certain times. On the year of your zodiac which is every 12 years, when you are 12, 24, 36 or so on, people wear red underwear or just something red in general. Because those years are called BenMing Nian 本命年, just meaning your own year and those years are supposed to be more tough and dramatic for you. Red is help you to defeat the obstacles you might have in that year.


论衡 LunHeng

广阳杂记 GuangYangZaJi

本命年 BenMing Nian

地支 earthly branches

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