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

Episode 22: Dream Eater

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I always think ancient people respect the nature more than we do today that’s why they created so many mythical creatures based on the real animals with imaginations like Shisa the guardian lion dogs are based on lions. Think about if you see a lion the first time in real life, you might be amazed by the creature and imagine they have magical powers especially if you never heard or see about it before.

Today we are going to talk about a mythical creature based on tapirs. Imagine if you see a tapir for the first time and you have no background of biology or science, what kind of power do you think a tapir have? For people who are not familiar with tapir, they have a pig body with a short nose trunk. I guess the special part is their trunk. The mythical animal is called Mengmo梦貘 in Chinese now which means dream tapir. Now you know they are related with dreams and yes they eat dreams with their trunk.

Originally, in Chinese mythology, we call them Mo , which doesn’t have anything to do with dreams. In the book ShuoWenJieZi说文解字, it explains the word Mo as a bear like brown animal. In the book Erya尔雅, Mo is described as a beast eating iron. In the article MoPingZan 貘屏赞by one the most famous poets Bai Juyi 白居易from Tang Dynasty 唐朝, it says Mo is an animal with a trunk of an elephant, eyes of a rhino, a tail of an ox and feet of a tiger, living in the valleys in the south. If you sleep on its hide it helps you avoid diseases and its figures can help you avoid bad luck. Chinese mythical animals or creatures in general are always made up of different real animals in the nature. Really want to know what the ancient Chinese people’s thought about a platypus, which was thought as a hoax by people in the history. As it says in the article, in Tang Dynasty, people like to make bed sheets or seat covers with Mo hide or draw the image of Mo on panel screens.

This myth spread to Japan and it became the dream eater Mengmo or Baku in Japanese. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman book, Baku is in it. In Japanese mythology, Bake devour dreams especially nightmares. It was first recorded in The Sankai Ibutsu, an illustrated Japanese book from 17th century . This book was supposed to be the illustrated book based on ShanHaiJing山海经, Classic of Mountains and Seas, yes the Chinese book we mentioned so many times, however the Japanese book contains the author’s own imagination and modification in it because Baku cannot be found in the origianl ShanHaiJing. That’s why today in China a lot of people always think Mengmo is from Classic of Mountains and Seas, however, Mengmo is actually a Japanese revised version of Mo from the revised version of Classic of Mountains and Seas.

Although the original Mo has nothing to do with dreams. There is a god named Boqi伯奇 who eats dreams in Chinese mythology, Boqi sounds like Baku in Japanese. It is recorded in the book TangLiuDian唐六典, it says in the Zhou Dynasty 周朝, Boqi’s father was an important person in the government and loved him very much. However after his mother died, his dad remarried. This step mother tried to sabotage him by telling his father Boqi was trying to do some disgraceful things to her. His father believed her and kicked Boqiout of the house. He died not too long after that and became a bird. In the book BaiZeJingGuaiTu 白泽 精 怪图, it says if you had nightmares, in the morning you can face to the northeast and says certain words to Boqi 7 times and you can get rid of your nightmares. So some people say the Japanese mythical creature Baku is a combination of Mo and Boqi. In Japan if a kid had a nightmares she or he can say “ Baku-san come to eat my dream” 3 times and Baku would come and devour dreams.

baku dreams eater from japanese mythical creatures book 2012

However, Baku has a dark side because if he remains hungry after the nightmares he may also eat their hopes and desires. So the calling has to be done sparingly. I think people just make up this part of the story to let the kids to go back to sleep quickly.

In Japan, the images of Baku can be found on pillowcases and the Chinese character Mo can be found on sailboats during Japan’s Edo period which was between the year 1603 ~ 1868 because Mo is a mythical animal that prospects people from bad luck. Baku was also a popular on wood-block prints and in shrine and temples in Meiji period in Japan. You know dream eater is a Pokemon move too. I know in Native American culture, you can hang up a dream catcher, which is a handmade woven web on a hoop decorated with feathers or beads. If the dream catcher doesn’t work for you, maybe try to tell Baku next time. Hope everyone can have sweet dreams.


说文解字 ShuoWenJieZi

尔雅 Erya

唐六典 TangLiuDian

伯奇 Boqi


白居易 Bai Juyi

The Sankai Ibutsu

山海经Classic of Mountains and Seas

梦貘 Mengmo/Baku

白泽 精 怪图 BaiZeJingGuaiTu