The Chinese Zodiac
The twelve animal signs of the Chinese calendar
by Elizabeth Olson
Unlike the Western linear calendar used in the United States, the Chinese calendar features a cyclical dating method that repeats every 60 years. The calendar is based on two cycles that interact with each other—the Chinese zodiac, which is divided into 12 parts, and the five elements. The five elements are metal, water, wood, fire, and earth.
Each year of the Chinese Zodiac is represented by a different animal: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The five elements are assigned to the 12 animals (years), giving different characteristics to each animal (year). Assigning each of the five elements to the 12 years creates 60 different combinations that results in a 60-year cycle.
Each Sign Has Personality Traits
Horoscopes were developed around animal signs to predict personality traits and destiny. Each animal is known to have certain characteristics that a person born under the sign would demonstrate. The year a person is born determines their animal sign. For example, a person's animal sign is a rat if they were born in the year of the rat. Animal signs are also assigned by month and hours of the day, which are also broken up into increments of 12. It is important to remember when determining the hour in which you were born, that hours are not based on local time, but in relation to the Sun's location, according to the Chinese Zodiac.
Animal Personality Traits
The Five Elements and Yin and Yang
Much of Chinese philosophy is built around five elements, and the belief that they interact with natural phenomena. The five elements, including metal, water, wood, fire, and earth, have existed in Chinese culture for thousands of years, and affect the Chinese Zodiac. Each element has different traits. Characteristics of the five elements are assigned to the 12 animal signs, creating 60 possible characteristic combinations. The concept of Yin and Yang also affects the Chinese Zodiac by assigning opposing forces to each animal sign—odd years are Yin years and even years are Yang years. Yin is perceived as earth, female, dark, and passive. Yang is perceived as male, heaven, light, and active.
Considering that the Chinese Zodiac was created thousands of years ago, it is not surprising that there are several interpretations of its origin. Most agree, however, that the 12 animals on the Chinese Zodiac calendar were the animals that appeared in response to an invitation to a celebration from Buddha or the Jade Emperor. Another legend says that the animals fought over their place on the calendar. In order to fairly resolve the conflict, the gods had them race across a river. The order of the animals on the calendar reflects their completion of the race—the rat placing first and the pig finishing last.
Although Buddha is the central figure in many stories about the origin of the Chinese Zodiac, there is some evidence that suggests the Chinese Zodiac may predate Buddhism. Early Chinese astronomers devised a system based on the 12-year orbit of Jupiter to tell time. The system included 12 earthly branches and existed long before Buddhism.