Many people view Chinese astrology and the Chinese animal signs as something they see on placemats in restaurants. There is much more to these concepts and ideas that date back more than 2,000 years. I have always been fascinated with the legends and folklore of China. The Chinese horoscope is partly legend and partly an ancient system of viewing the heaven and earth and all that moves through it.
Chinese astrology is based on traditional Chinese astronomy and system of calendars, and it does not calculate the positions of sun, moon and planets at birth, but is related to the Three Harmonies of Heaven, Earth and Water and the systems of 5 planets, the 10 Celestial stems and the 12 Earthly Branches
The lunar calendar has a sixty year cycle. In the Chinese horoscope, the five elements of Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth, which make up all matter, are combined with the twelve animal signs of Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Lamb, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig to form the sixty year cycle. A Chinese horoscope is based on which lunar year in this sixty year cycle you were born.
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There are several legends about how the animals were chosen for the Chinese zodiac. This is one of them.
According to a Chinese legend, the twelve animals quarreled one day as to who was to head the cycle of years. The gods were asked to decide and they held a contest: whoever was to reach the opposite bank of the river would be first, and the rest of the animals would receive their years according to their finish. The Jade Emperor is the name of the Emperor of Heaven.
Long ago, in China, the Jade Emperor decided there should be a way of measuring time.
On his birthday he told the animals that there was to be a swimming race. The first twelve animals across the fast flowing river would be the winners and they would each have a year of the zodiac named after them.
All the animals lined up along the river bank. The rat and the cat, who were good friends, were worried because they were poor swimmers. Being clever they asked the strong ox if he would carry them across the river.
‘Of course’ said the kind ox. ‘Just climb on my back and I will take you across.’
The rat and the cat quickly jumped up and were very excited when the ox soon took the lead in the race. They had almost reached the other bank when the rat pushed the cat into the river leaving him to struggle in the water. Then just before the ox was about to win the race the rat leapt on his head and on to the bank to finish first.
‘Well done,’ said the Jade Emperor to the proud rat. ‘The first year of the zodiac will be named after you.’
The poor ox had been tricked into second place and the second year of the zodiac was named after him.
Shortly after the exhausted tiger clawed his way to the river bank to claim third place. Swimming across the river had been an enormous struggle for him against the strong currents.
The Emperor was so delighted with his efforts that he named the third year after him.
Next to arrive was the rabbit, who hadn’t swum across at all. He hopped across on some stepping stones and then found a floating log which carried him to the shore.
‘I shall be very happy to call the fourth year after you,’ the surprised Jade Emperor explained.
Just then a kind dragon swooped down to take fifth place.
‘Why didn’t you win the race, as you can fly as well as swim?’ the Jade Emperor asked.
‘I was held up because some people and animals needed water to drink. I needed to make some rain,’ the dragon explained. ‘Then when I was nearly here I saw a poor little rabbit on a log in the water and I blew a puff of wind so that the log would float to the river bank.’
‘Well that was very kind of you and now you are here you will have the fifth year of the zodiac named after you.’
The next thing the Jade Emperor heard was the sound of the horse’s hooves.
Just as he was thinking the horse would be the next animal to arrive, a sneaky snake wriggled out from around one of the horse’s hooves. The horse was so surprised that he jumped backwards giving the snake a chance to take the sixth place in the race. The poor horse had to be satisfied with seventh place.
Not long afterwards a raft arrived carrying the goat, the monkey and the rooster.
They explained to the Emperor how they had shared the raft that the rooster had found. The goat and monkey had cleared weeds and pushed the raft to the shore.
The Emperor was very pleased that the animals had worked together. He said the goat would be the eighth zodiac animal, the monkey th
e ninth and the rooster the tenth.
The next animal to finish was the dog.
‘Why are you so late when you are one of the best swimmers?’ asked the Jade Emperor.
‘The water in the river was so clean that I had to have a bath on the way,’ explained the dog.
His reward was to have the eleventh year named after him.
Now there was one place left in the zodiac and the Emperor wondered when the last winner would come. He had nearly given up when he heard a grunt from the boar
‘You took a long time to cross the river,’ said the Emperor to the boar.
‘I was hungry and stopped to eat,’ explained the boar. ‘After the meal I felt so tired that I fell asleep.’
‘You have still done well,’ said the Jade Emperor. ‘The last year of the zodiac will be named after you.’
As for the cat who had been pushed into the water by the rat, he finally crawled out of the water but was too late to have a year named after him. He felt very cross with the rat and since then cats have never been friends with rats
From that day to this the Chinese Zodiac has followed this cycle of years named after these twelve animals.