Introduction To The Chinese Zodiac

By Michael Quesada September 06, 2018

Introduction To The Chinese Zodiac

Chinese Zodiac 101: An Introduction

“What’s your animal sign?”

If you are asked this question but have absolutely no idea what’s it all about, then it’s time to get yourself acquainted with the Chinese Zodiac.  Known in Chinese as Shēngxiào, it’s a tradition that not only dates back to ancient times but it continues to thrive in the modern world. It is believed to influence people’s lives including their fortune (good or otherwise), personality, love, career and other facets.

To fully understand how and what this is all about, it’s best to dive into its history and its significance.  Let’s turn the hands of time and discover its Ancient China beginnings and its importance.

The Origin Of The 12 Animal Zodiac

When it comes to the origination of the Chinese zodiac, there's no telling how it specifically started.  There have been a lot of myths and legends involving its origins.  To this day, it is something that remains unclear given that there are different accounts of it out there.

Some have attributed the rise of the animal zodiac to that of the ancient trade route - the Silk Road.  However, scholars have begged to disagree.  While the Silk Road brought Buddhism to China, the same cannot be said for the zodiac.  The Chinese Zodiac is believed to have predated Buddhism and it can be traced back to ancient Chinese astronomy.

It is believed that the Chinese Zodiac featuring 12 animals appeared first during the Zhan Guo period (around the 5th century B.C.) but they were only identified officially during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–9 A.D).

Chinese Zodiac

The use of the Chinese Zodiac to know people’s birth years first gained prominence during the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581 A.D.).

The Lunar Calendar which was believed to have been invented sometime in the 14th Century B.C. can be credited for the order of the Chinese Zodiac animals.

 The Great Race

Another famous origin story is that of a myth involving the Jade Emperor.  In some versions, the Jade Emperor has been replaced by Buddha.

In this myth aptly called “The Great Race”, the Jade Emperor called all the animals that roamed the Earth and asked them to race one another in honor of his birthday.

In order for the animals to be considered as part of the zodiac, they had to cross a river.  The animals’ placement in the race would determine their position in the zodiac. 

There are actually a lot of versions of the myth but one of the most revered ones go something like this:

Once there were two friends - the Cat and the Rat.  The Rat heard about the race the Jade Emperor was organizing asked the Rat to wake him up so they could go together.  The rat said he would do so.  However, on the day of the event, the Rat was super excited and forgot to wake the Cat up.

Chinese Zodiac

When the race started, it was every animal for himself.  The Rat, upon getting to the river had to figure out a way to cross the said body of water.  While thinking of what to do, he found the Ox who was relaxing nearby.

Quick on his feet, the Rat asked the Ox to help him cross the river.  The Ox did not mind at all and agreed to help the Rat.  Once they crossed the river together, the Rat jumped off the Ox’s back and rushed to the Jade Emperor’s feet.  This meant that the Rat was the first to arrive, followed by the Ox who came behind him.

The next animal to arrive was the Tiger.  He was then followed by the Rabbit who used stones and a log to get across.  Following the Rabbit was the Dragon who came in fifth place.  The Dragon had to pause for a bit to help the Rabbit's log move across the river by blowing puffing some air.

Following the Dragon was the horse who crossed the river with little effort.  But he only came seventh as the Snake hid in one of his hooves and made its way to the Jade Emperor first. 

Coming in together and placing eighth, ninth and 10th respectively were the sheep, monkey, and rooster.  Placing 11th was the dog and taking the 12th and final spot was the Pig.

At the beginning of the story, there as a mention of the Cat asking the Rat to wake him up.  Well unfortunately for the Cat, he missed the race as he woke up when it was all over.

After the race and the Jade Emperor’s birthday ended, the Cat began to hate the Rat and they became fierce enemies.  Since then, they have grown to hate each other and it is believed that they have carried their hatred to this very day.

Chinese Zodiac

Knowing Your Animal Sign

In Chinese Astrology, each zodiac sign has a corresponding element.  It could either be:

  • Earth
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Wood
  • Metal

It is believed that a year a person is born in has a correlation to their zodiac sign. And because of this, a person's sign has something to do with his personality. There is also a belief that even a person is influenced by his or her birth hour and birth month.

So if you are wondering what your zodiac sign is and if you want to know if it stays true to your own personality, here’s a brief rundown that you can actually check out:

Rat (Water)

(1972, 1984, 1996, 2008)
People born under the Rat sign are known to be:
  • Kind
  • Intelligent
  • Versatile
  • And active.

Ox (Water)

(1973, 1985, 1997, 2009)
Those who have the Ox as their zodiac sign are:
  • Honest
  • Hardworking
  • Patient
  • Strong

Tiger (Wood)

(1974, 1986, 1998, 2010)

  • Emotional
  • Persistent
  • Diligent
  • Confident

Rabbit (Wood)

(1975, 1987, 1999, 2011)

  • Skillful
  • Considerate
  • Quick
  • Elegant

Dragon (Wood)

(1976, 1988, 2000, 2012)

  • Ambitious
  • Hardworking
  • Generous
  • Competitive

Snake (Fire)

(1977, 1989, 2001, 2013)

  • Confident
  • Intelligent
  • Wise
  • Charming

Horse  (Fire)

(1978, 1990, 2002, 2014)

  • Kind
  • Energetic
  • Determined
  • Stubborn

Goat (Fire)

(1979, 1991, 2003, 2015)

  • Shy
  • Amicable
  • Artistic
  • Pessimist

Monkey (Metal)

(1980, 1992, 2004, 2016)

  • Intelligent
  • Clever
  • Adventurous
  • Witty

Rooster (Metal)

(1980, 1992, 2004, 2016)

  • Talented
  • Resourceful
  • Efficient
  • Sharp

Dog (Metal)

(1970, 1982, 1994, 2006)

  • Amiable
  • Prudent
  • Loyal
  • Impatient

Pig (Water)

(1971, 1983, 1995, 2007)

  • Diligent
  • Easy-going
  • Emotional
  • Optimistic

While these descriptions are short, they can give you an idea of what the different Chinese Zodiac signs are and what they are all about.

Back in ancient China, the zodiac was used to determine if two people were compatible.  Today there are still some who practice this to find out if people who would like to get into marriages or romantic relationships are suitable with and for each other or not.

Ben Ming Nian (Your Zodiac Year of Birth)

Apart from personality traits and compatibility, superstitions from ancient Chinese beliefs say that your zodiac birth sign years can be unlucky.

Every 12 years, you will have the opportunity to see your sign year.  This is what the Chinese call "Ben Ming Nian”. 

To drive this off, people are advised to take some precautionary measures like:

  • Wear something red - Chinese people believe that this color brings them good luck and gets rid of bad luck
  • Wear something jade - Jade is often associated with Pixui who is considered as the god of peace, wealth and fortune.  Wearing something with jade is said to attract good luck.


Whatever your personal beliefs are, you can’t deny the fact that there is some sort of wonder to the Chinese zodiac.

It is certainly a fascinating and enthralling practice that has spanned centuries.  And what's even more interesting about this is that even with all the trappings of modern technology, people are still holding on tight to this ancient practice and their beliefs.

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The Fascinating History of The Chinese Zodiac


Michael Quesada

Founder of this website; currently living vicariously through himself.

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