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Chinese Zodiac

February 3, 2015

Chinese Zodiac bookmarks

In a few short weeks, Asian communities worldwide will commence their year’s most important celebration. Chinese New Year will be ushered in with the traditional sights of the season—feasts to fill, fireworks to dazzle, hongbaos (洪保) to exchange. As part of this year’s celebration, one animal of twelve will take center stage and begin its turn in the cyclical succession of Chinese Zodiac to mark and influence the year.


Chinese Zodiac, or Shengxiao

In Chinese astronomy, time is divided into twelve-year cycles, and each year is represented in turn by the following animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Beyond its function as calendar and timekeeper, the Chinese zodiac, or shengxiao 生肖 (birth likeness) has been used for thousands of years as a predictor of temperament and destiny. Each animal of the Chinese Zodiac possesses certain traits and characteristics that are then passed onto those born under the reigning year. To be born in the Year of the Goat, for example, would give one the traits and character of the goat.


Chinese Zodiac Character Traits
Rat 鼠 (shǔ) resourceful, wise, ambitious, charming, industrious, artistic
Ox 牛 (niú) diligent, reliable, honest, determined, ambitious
Tiger 虎 (hǔ) brave, confident, adventurous, independent
Rabbit 兔 / 兎 (tù) gentle, quiet, clever, alert, kind, patient, cautious
Dragon 龍 / 龙 (lóng) enthusiastic, confident, intelligent, ambitious, hardworking
Snake 蛇 (shé) intelligent, wise, calm, courageous, lively
Horse 馬 / 马 (mǎ) active, energetic, kind, rational, optimistic
Goat 羊 (yáng) calm, gentle, creative, thoughtful, helpful, trusting
Monkey 猴 (hóu) smart, quick-witted, frank, optimistic, ambitious, adventurous
Rooster 雞 / 鸡 (jī) observant, hard-working, confident, courageous, talented, honest
Dog 狗 / 犬 (gǒu) honest, amiable, kind, cautious, prudent, loyal, sincere
Pig 豬 / 猪 (zhū) compassionate, generous, easy-going, earnest, responsible, modest

The Chinese zodiac became an established calendar system during the Han Dynasty, though it’s unclear where the formation of the Chinese zodiac originated. Some argue the zodiac arrived with traders on the Silk Road, around the time Buddhism was making its way from India to China. Others say that the zodiac predates Buddhism in China, tracing the roots of the zodiac instead to an ancient Chinese astronomy governed by the orbit of Jupiter (Jupiter’s orbit is nearly twelve years, matching the cycle of the zodiac.) Others still say that the Chinese zodiac originated with early nomadic tribes in China who constructed a calendar based on animals they commonly hunted and gathered.


The Great Race

Chinese Zodiac There are many origin stories for the Chinese zodiac, but one favorite myth tells of the Great Race. Jade Emperor (a high-or-highest deity in many Asian traditions) summoned all animals to a meeting, promising the animals would represent the twelve calendar years by order of arrival.

Jade Emperor was separated from the animals by a river, and all animals had to attempt the crossing. Rat and Cat, particularly ambitious and clever creatures, wanted to arrive first. Because of their small size, however, they realized they would need help in crossing the river. They climbed atop Ox, relying on Ox’s strength and sturdiness. Mid-journey, Rat pushed Cat off of Ox and into the river. Upon nearing the shore, Rat leapt from Ox and became the first animal to reach to Jade Emperor. Rat was named first, Ox second.

Tiger was next to arrive. Tiger explained the river ran swift and was difficult to cross. For his might and speed, Tiger was named third. Then, came Rabbit. Rabbit had used his agility in jumping from stone to stone to cross the river. Rabbit, though, had nearly failed. While hopping from one stone to another, Rabbit slipped, and fell into the river. Rabbit caught hold of a log, however, and was able to successfully drift to shore. Rabbit was named fourth.

Next was Dragon. Jade Emperor was surprised at the tardiness of Dragon’s arrival—Dragon was the most powerful of the animals and could have flown directly to the shore. Dragon explained that he first delivered rain to the people of the earth. Then while en route to the meeting, Dragon saw Rabbit struggling in the river. Dragon sent a piece of driftwood to Rabbit and blew a gust of wind to propel Rabbit safely to shore. Commended for his kindness, Jade Emperor named Dragon fifth.

Soon after, Horse galloped up to Jade Emperor. Snake, who had secretly hidden in Horse’s hoof, then emerged. Snake’s sudden appearance startled Horse, and Horse fell back. Snake was named sixth and Horse was named seventh.

Goat, Monkey, and Rooster arrived soon after. Rooster had discovered a raft near the bank of the river, and led Goat and Monkey to the finding. Goat and Monkey then cleared the raft of weeds and tangles and pushed the raft toward the river. All three boarded the raft and arrived safely on shore. Because of their teamwork, Goat was named eighth, Monkey ninth, and Rooster tenth.

Dog arrived after the trio. Though the strongest swimmer, Dog couldn’t resist the urge to play in the river rather than hurry to shore. Unwilling to admit his folly, Dog instead claimed he was in need of a bath. Dog was named eleventh.

The final animal to reach the shore was Pig. During his journey to the Jade Emperor, Pig took a break for lunch and a nap. Pig overslept and rushed to shore and was named the twelfth and final animal of the zodiac.

Cat never arrived to shore. Cat drowned in the river and was not included in the Chinese zodiac. It’s often said that cats have never forgotten this slight, and to this day cats chase mice in retribution.


Benming Nian, Tai Sui, and Ensuring Luck

Once every twelve years, your birth animal takes center stage as the reigning animal of the year; the name of this occurrence is benming nian 本命年. February 2015 will begin the Year of the Goat, and for individuals who are the sign of the goat this year has special meaning. One might think that luck awaits when your birth animal takes its turn through the cyclical procession of zodiac animals. Unfortunately, this is not so. Tradition states that benming nian brings back luck and evil mischief to last the entire year.

Tai Sui 太歲, the God of Age in many traditions, becomes offended and jealous when one’s benming nian rolls around. It is this offense that spells bad fortune for the year. Individuals are warned not to undertake any life-changing shifts during their benming nian—no weddings, moves, job changes, or pregnancies. It’s advised to keep a low-profile and wait out the year.

There are ways to combat the potential tide of misfortune, however. In China, it’s recommended that one wear red clothing and jade jewelry as a talisman against evil. (Many in China receive red undergarments for their benming nian!) In Taiwan, many go to temple in offering to Tai Sui. At temple, candles and lanterns are lit to burn and consume bad luck that could have otherwise followed.