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Journey to the West: Lunar New Year (2016)


The Chinese Zodiac Calendar, the Shēngxiào, and its Mythology.

The Chinese zodiac is based on a twelve- year cycle, with each year named after one of twelve animals. For example, 1984 was the Year of the Rat, and 1999 the Year of the Rabbit. When the cycle is complete, it begins anew, with animals representing each year in the same order. The 12 animals that appear on the Chinese Zodiac calendar include a rat, buffalo (ox), tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Their appearance on the Chinese Zodiac is the topic of countless legends and is deeply embedded in Chinese mythology.

The most well-known of the Chinese zodiac legends states that Buddha invited the animals to participate in a race. The prize was a coveted position on the Chinese Zodiac calendar. The first 12 animals to cross the river would appear on the Chinese Zodiac calendar in the order in which they completed the race.

The first animal to make it across the finish line was the rat. Although it seems unlikely that such a small animal could win such a strenuous race, Chinese Zodiac legends and mythology explains that the rat used his brain rather than his brawn. It hitched a ride on what it perceived was the mightiest swimmer, the Water Buffalo (aka Ox). Just before the buffalo reached the shore, the rat jumped off the buffalo’s back and crossed the finish line first.

The buffalo came in second and became the second animal listed on the Chinese Zodiac. The tiger, also being strong, came in third, followed by the rabbit that jumped his way across and was helped during the last stretch by the dragon. A snake hid in the hoof of the horse which is how it managed to make it across the river. At the last minute the snake jumped out and scared the horse into seventh place.

The sheep, monkey and rooster helped one another across and earned their spots on the calendar as well. The dog made it too, but decided a bath was more important than the position which is why it came in eleventh. Finally, the pig appeared and is listed last because the pig feasted and rested half-way through the race.

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This is the most widespread legend about Chinese zodiac. The Jade Emperor (The Emperor in Heaven in Chinese folklore) ordered that animals would be designated as calendar signs and the twelve that arrived first would be selected. At that time, the cat and the rat were good friends and neighbors. When they heard of this news, the cat said to the rat: 'We should arrive early to sign up, but I usually get up late.' The rat then promised to awaken his friend and go together. However, on the morning when he got up, he was too excited to recall his promise, and went directly to the gathering place. On the way, he encountered the tiger, ox, horse, and other animals that ran much faster. In order not to fall behind them, he thought up a good idea. He made the straightforward ox carry him on condition that he sang for the ox. At last, the ox and rat arrived first. The ox was happy thinking that he would be the first sign of the years, but the rat had already slid in front, and became the first lucky animal of the Chinese zodiac. Meanwhile his neighbor the cat was too late so when it finally arrived, the selection was over. That's why other animals appear behind the little rat and why the cat hates the rat so much that every time they meet, the cat will chase and kill it. []

More variations of this intriguing tale tells of an invitation to a grand feast. All the animals were invited to join Buddha at either a birthday celebration, a New Year celebration, or a celebration for his departure from this world. Only 12 animals showed up at the festivities and that’s how they ended up being featured on the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Another of the legends of the Chinese Zodiac states that instead of Buddha, it was the Jade Emperor who invited the animals.

Regardless of the specific version of Chinese Zodiac history to which you subscribe, the Chinese Zodiac has amazed and entertained people around the world for thousands of years. The zodiac animal for the year is a big feature in New Year’s parades.


The Chinese Zodiac is based on your year of birth based on the Lunar Calendar

A person’s zodiac sign is the animal representing the year in which he or she was born. A person is said to have the traits of that animal.

Years Corresponding to Chinese Zodiac Sign

The Chinese Zodiac has 12 signs: rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Each sign has a corresponding Chinese zodiac personality. 

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  • Rat – quick-witted, charming, funny, and sharp.
  • Ox (buffalo)– hardworking, serious, goal-oriented, and steadfast.
  • Tiger – charming, ambitious, authoritative, and moody.
  • Rabbit – family-oriented, sincere, compassionate, and popular.
  • Dragon – egotistic, natural born leaders, energetic, and warm-hearted.
  • Snake – analytical, dangerous, seductive, and smart.
  • Horse – enjoys travelling, money wise, and loves to roam free.
  • Goat (sheep or ram) – unorganized, thinkers, creative, and places importance on appearances.
  • Monkey – clever, active, thrives on having fun, and a heart-breaker.
  • Rooster – practical, observant, honest, and a perfectionist.
  • Dog – faithful, temperamental, dogmatic, and sensitive.
  • Pig (boar) – intelligent, nice, tasteful, and good-mannered.

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The content for this page was made possible by the hard work of Associate Librarian Corinne Pitcher.