Legend of the Chinese Zodiac

by Audrey Lim, Mar 3, 2003 | Destinations: Hong Kong / Macau / Malaysia / Singapore / China / Taiwan / Kuala Lumpur / Beijing / Taipei


In my family, we have a dog, an ox, a rat, a tiger, and two dragons! When such a varied bunch sits together, one can expect a clashing of "personalities" and other factors... but such is the importance of these "animals" in a Chinese home. Although we are all basically human beings, as goes without saying, yet to every Chinese family, the animals play a strong role in determining a lot of things that goes in and out of their lives. Malaysian Chinese trail their ancestors all the way back to China and although majority of us are no longer as strict in our beliefs, we still have many traditions and customs that we follow to this day.

Aside from 101 rules to follow when preparing for a wedding, there are also another 101 rules in ensuring that the family lineage continues well into the next generation, along with another 101 rulings on which year would be a good year to have a child. As newly-wed, I have been getting the brunt of it during our last family gathering. It was to be expected that once the elders have bugged you into getting married, their next task is to ensure that the woman gets laden with a child soon enough and hopefully, many more to follow in the years to come. While it isn't my idea of fun becoming someone's baby manufacturing factory, yet the concept of having a "Monkey Baby" or "Rooster Kid" is rather amusing if not downright amazing that people of today still believe in this old tradition. Seemingly, if the father of the soon-to-be-born child is a rat, then it would be good if the child comes out a dragon. While I would prefer my child to be a healthy baby, this concept of animal zodiac has a rather interesting background.

For those who are not familiar with the Chinese Zodiac, it is basically made up of a 12-year cycle and the Chinese animal signs are used for dating the years. While the Western concept of time is linear, the Chinese one is cyclical. The Chinese Lunar Calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, and is quite different from the Western calendar. According to the Chinese calendar, the year begins somewhere towards the end of January or early February. While most of the Chinese civilization has adopted the Western calendar, yet for festive seasons, the Chinese Lunar Calendar is still the determining factor.

As mentioned above, the Chinese calendar is cyclical; therefore it simply means that certain things will be repeated after a time. The popular way of doing so is by using the Twelve Animal Signs. Each year is assigned an animal and they go in this cycle: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. After a 12-year cycle that ends at the Boar, it would go back to the year of the Rat once more.

Aside from marking the yearly cycle, the Chinese Zodiac also serves as one's horoscope, as you would find in a Western one such as Gemini, Leo, Cancer, etc. While someone who is born a Gemini is regarded as gregarious, exuberant, and cheerful, then someone who is born under the year of the Horse is both cheerful, popular and loves praises from others. Although these horoscopes are interesting reading material, yet not many actually take it too seriously.

One such interesting read would be the legend of the Chinese Zodiac; of how the twelve animals came to be and why certain animals were omitted. The legend was told many centuries ago, when the Chinese have not invented a time measurement yet. For it, the Jade Emperor (Emperor of Heaven) decided to call for a contest: a race! All the animals of the kingdom were invited to participate in this event that incidentally took place during the emperor's birthday. There will only be 12 winners. In order to win and gain a permanent place in the Zodiac Years, the animals must cross a swift current river and reach the designated spot on the shore.

While we are all aware of the hatred between a cat and a rat, these two animals were actually very good friends once. Good friends they may be, but these two animals are the worst swimmers in the animal kingdom. Although bad swimmers, they were both intelligent. They decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river is to hop on the back of the ox. The ox, being a naïve and good-natured animal, agreed to carry them across. However, when there is a carrot dangling in front, it is sometimes difficult to stick to friendship and the crafty rat decides that in order to win, it must do something and promptly pushed the cat into the river. Because of this, the cat had never forgiven the rat, and no doubt, hated the water too. After the ox had crossed the river, the rat jumped ahead and reached the shore first, and it cleverly claimed first place in the race!

Following closely behind was the strong ox, and it was named the 2nd animal in the zodiac. After the ox, came the tiger, panting away while explaining to the emperor just how difficult it was to cross the river with the heavy currents pushing it downstream all the time. But with powerful strength, it made to shore and was named the 3rd animal in the cycle.

Suddenly, from a distance came a thumping sound and out pop the rabbit. It explained how it crossed the river: by jumping from one stone to another in a nimble fashion. Halfway through, it almost lost the race but the rabbit was lucky enough to grab hold of a floating log that later washed him to shore. For that, it became the 4th animal in the zodiac cycle. Coming in 5th place was the gallant dragon, flying and belching fire into the air. Of course the Emperor was deeply curious as to why a strong and flying creature such as the dragon should fail to reach first. The mighty dragon explained that he had to stop and make rain to help all the people and creatures of the earth, therefore he was held back a little. Then on his way to the finish line, he saw a little helpless rabbit clinging on to a log so he did a good deed and gave a puff of breath to the poor creature so that it could land on the shore. The emperor was very pleased with the actions of the dragon and he was added into the zodiac cycle. As soon as he had done so, a galloping sound was heard and the horse appeared. Hidden on the horse's hoof is the slimy sneaky snake whose sudden appearance gave the horse a fright thus making it fall back and gave the snake 6th spot whilst the horse took the 7th.

Not long after that, a little distance away, the sheep, monkey and rooster came to the shore. These three creatures helped each other to get to where they are. The rooster spotted a raft, and took the other two animals with it. Together, the sheep and the monkey cleared the weeds, tugged and pulled and finally got the raft to the shore. Because of their combined efforts, the Emperor was very pleased and promptly named the sheep as the 8th creature, the monkey as the 9th, and the rooster the 10th.

The 11th animal is the dog. His explanation for being late although he was supposed to be the best swimmer amongst the rest was that he needed a good bath after a long spell, and the fresh water from the river was too big a temptation. For that, he almost didn't make it to finish line. Just as the emperor was about to call it a day, an oink and squeal was heard from a little pig. The term "lazy pig" is due here as the pig got hungry during the race, promptly stopped for a feast then fell asleep. After the nap, the pig continued the race and was named the 12th and last animal of the zodiac cycle.

Have you ever wondered what your Chinese zodiac sign may be and how it signifies your character? Here's a brief idea of what each creature signifies to your character.

Years: 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924, 1912, 1900
Characteristics: Those who are born in the year of the rat are known to be innovative, intelligent and full of crafty ideas. They are also people who know how to make the best of a situation, making it their advantage. They are also collectors by nature, and are probably the only ones who are awake when the world is asleep. Rats basically need to be careful with their temper and greed. They are best matched with the Dragons and Monkeys. Their archenemies are the Horses. How true this is I am not sure, but my husband is born in the year of the Rat and I am in the year of the Dragon. We have a great partnership! Perhaps there is some truth in this.

Ox (Buffalo)
Years: 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925, 1913, 1901
Characteristics: Honest, patient and conservative. The Ox is most happy when left alone to their devices. They are also great parents because the Ox is regarded as a dependable creature. However, they are also stubborn creatures. Because of their dependable character, you can trust that an Ox will always finish the task laid out to them despite having a slow start. They are good friends with Snakes and Roosters, but totally at ends with Goats.

Years: 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926, 1914, 1902
Characteristics: Just like the creature, Tigers are brave and powerful creatures. They are also people who dare to take risks, which of course make them good natural leaders. In order to secure their stand and ensure everything works well, a Tiger must think carefully before making a move, and not let their brash character offend others. Good friends to the Tiger are Dogs and Horses. Monkeys are a no-no.

Years: 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927, 1915, 1903
Characteristics: It is said that those born in the year of the Rabbit are the luckiest of them all. This is because the Rabbit have good characters. They are gentle, talented, friendly and always gracious. These wonderful qualities make them highly popular among their friends. Sometimes, a Rabbit can be very shy and sentimental, but if they can overcome that, they can succeed in almost everything that they do. Good friends are Goats and Pigs; but Roosters are not on a Rabbit's list of buddies.

Years: 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928, 1916, 1904
Characteristics: Unique, energetic and overly-dramatic are the Dragons. They also have an interesting imagination. On the downside, the Dragons are moody creatures who strive for perfection. Dragons should be aware of Dogs but are buddies with Rats and Monkeys.

Years: 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, 1929, 1917, 1905
Characteristics: While many deemed the Snakes are sly and cunning, the Snakes are actually talented and graceful creatures. They are also wise and subtle in their ways. They are generally people who care about their looks and are sometimes rather stingy. However, if only the Snake knows how to make use of their true qualities, they will find themselves quite popular. A Snake is best with the Rooster and Ox, while it hates the Pigs.

Years: 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930, 1918, 1906
Characteristics: A Horse's high spirit and energy are engaging. Their positive outlook in life also makes them well-liked among friends. By nature, those who are born in the year of the Horse love to travel, preferably alone. Because of their character, they are generally impatient creatures, therefore they should learn to chill out and finish whatever tasks they've started on. Good mates for the Horse are Tigers or Dogs. Rats are definitely out.

Years: 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931, 1919, 1907
Characteristics: This is a loving and gentle bunch. They are also elegant and creative. They can be rather shy at times, but once they learn to step out of their comfort zones, they should do well. Goats are not particularly friendly with the Ox, but enjoy being around Pigs and Rabbits.

Years: 2004, 1992, 1980. 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932, 1920, 1908
Characteristics: Monkeys are fun people to be with because they are confident, energetic and happy. They are also curious creature. Attention is always showered upon them because of these attitudes. However, if a monkey gets overly confident, they can confuse themselves. Monkeys are advised to stay away from Tigers and find solace in Dragons or Rats.

Years: 2005, 1993, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933, 1921, 1909
Characteristics: And so when the Rooster crows at the crack of dawn, it wakes us up. Roosters are generally punctual people, totally reliable and independent. They also enjoy taking center stage and are sometimes vain creatures. Because of this, the dependable Ox and shrewd Snakes make good friends while the solid Rabbit smells trouble.

Years: 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934, 1922, 1910
Characteristics: As most of you already know, Dogs are sporting, loyal and honest people. They are also helpful and positive, although sometimes they tend to worry too much. Dogs make good friends with Horses or Tigers, but beware of the Dragons.

Pig (Boar)
Year: 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923, 1911
Characteristics: Noble and strong, the Boar or Pigs are noble creatures and will always put others ahead of themselves, especially their family. Friendships they build will last a long time even though the reckless nature of a Pig can sometimes be tough to handle. Pigs are a bane to themselves, therefore making friends with Rabbits or Goats would be a good idea.

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