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Originating from Ancient China, the Chinese zodiac assigns an animal to each year for twelve years in a continuous cycle, following the course of the lunisolar calendar (which uses astronomical phenomena to plot days, months and years).

Thought to be inspired by the orbit of Jupiter – an event that takes 11.85 years – the Chinese Zodiac is made up of 12 earthly branches, which correspond 1-to-1 to each of the twelve zodiac animals. Consequently, a person born in the year of a particular animal is thought to embody the animal’s traits, including any compatibilities – or incompatibilities – that they have with other zodiac animals.

In order, these animals are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

Moreover, these branches are matched with the 10 heavenly stems – sometimes called the celestial stems – which formerly marked the 10 days of the week. Though the heavenly stems have surrendered their original timekeeping use, they acquired a new significance alongside the earthly branches, to distinctly mark each year in a 60-year calendrical cycle.

History and legends of the chinese zodiac

Thought to have been developed in the beginnings of Chinese civilisation, historical artefacts have proven the Zodiac’s existence at least from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD) as there are records referencing the zodiac in ancient books made from bamboo.

Historical evidence suggests that using the zodiac as a method of marking people’s birth year became popularised in the North Zhou dynasty (557-581 AD).

Because there are no specific records explaining the creation of the zodiac – or why it became used to mark people’s birth year – there is a lot of mythology surrounding its initiation. The most popular of these legends is called ‘The Great Race’.

According to legend, the Chinese Zodiac was created when the Jade Emperor (an ancient depiction of God, and a prominent figure in Chinese mythology) decided that each year on the lunisolar calendar would be assigned to an animal, depending on where they placed in a great race. In order to finish the race, the animals had to cross a treacherous river.

The first animal to make it over the finish line was the rat, who had climbed onto the ox’s back to make it across the water – and so, the rat became the first Zodiac animal.

The second animal to finish was the ox as the rat had raced ahead of it to ensure his own win. So, the ox was named the second animal of the Zodiac calendar.

The Tiger came in 3rd place as – although he was strong – he was not as strong a swimmer as the ox and the currents had pushed him downstream, making him the third Zodiac animal.

Coming in fourth place, the rabbit had hopped from stone to stone before he fell into the water. Luckily for the rabbit, however, he managed to grab hold of a log, which carried him to shore, allowing him to become the fourth animal of the Zodiac calendar.

Much to the Jade Emperor’s surprise, the mighty dragon came in fifth, despite being able to fly, and therefore being able to evade the treacherous water. However, along the way the dragon had stopped to bring rain to a village in drought, and on his way back to the race he noticed the rabbit clinging desperately to a log, so he blew him to safety. And so, the dragon became the fifth Zodiac animal.

The snake came in 6th place after clinging to a horse’s hoof. At the very end of the race, the snake suddenly appeared in front of the horse, frightening him away and allowing himself to claim sixth place and become the sixth Zodiac animal.

Meanwhile the horse arrived at the finish line close behind, achieving seventh place and becoming the seventh animal of the Zodiac calendar.

A triplet of good-natured animals – the goat the monkey and the rooster – worked together to float around across the River and so they became the eighth, ninth and tenth animals of the Zodiac calendar. The dog finished in eleventh place as – although he was well equipped to swim across the river – he had stopped to play in bathe in the water. Thus, he became the eleventh Zodiac animal.

In last place, the pig oinked over the finish line after waking from a nap brought on by a mid-race snack.

The legend states that there was a thirteenth animal who took part in the great race: the cat, who had likewise climbed on top of the ox to cross the river alongside the rat, was pushed off at the last second by the rat who wanted to ensure his win. As a result, the cat drowned and never became a Zodiac animal – it is rumoured that this is why cats hunt mice and why they’re afraid of water.

In contrast to this legend, however, historians believe that the cat is not included on the Chinese Zodiac because they had not been introduced into China by the time of the Zodiac’s creation.

Chinese Zodiac

Animals of the Chinese Zodiac

In addition to embodying their own unique traits, the animals of the Chinese Zodiac are further distinguished by their element – either metal, wood, water, fire and earth – and these elements are thought to affect how individuals interact as, based on Ancient Chinese philosophy, these are the fundamental elements of the universe between which all interactions take place.

For example, the positive ‘generating’ interactions between elements happen as follows: wood fuels fire, fire forms earth, earth contains metal, metal acts as a carrier for water, and water nourishes wood.

The negative ‘overcoming’ interactions, on the other hand, occur like so: fire melts metal, metal cuts wood, wood penetrates the earth, the earth absorbs water, and water puts out fire.

And these interactions are thought to influence how compatible people are, in addition to predicting conflict between individuals.

It is important to note that the Chinese Zodiac assigns another element to each person’s birth year, which is independent of the animal’s underlying element (though they can be the same). Both have an impact on people’s lives, personalities and compatibilities.

Moreover, the animals are classified further as either yin (feminine/negative) or yang (masculine/positive).

Chinese ZodiacRecent birth yearsYin / YangElementTraits
Rat1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020YangWaterSmart, adaptable, quick witted
Ox1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021YinEarthKind, calm, persistent
Tiger1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022YangWoodCourageous, loyal, authoritative
Rabbit1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023YinWoodCompassionate, gentle, sincere
Dragon1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024YangEarthEnergetic, fearless, generous of heart
Snake1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025YinFireCharming, perceptive, determined
Horse1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026YangFireIndependent, energetic, positive
Sheep1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027YinEarthKind, reliable, hardworking
Monkey1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028YangMetalSelf-assured, social, smart
Rooster1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029YinEarthObservant, hardworking, outgoing
Dog1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030YangEarthLoyal, diligent, brave
Pig1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031YinWaterHonest, loving, generous