The myth behind the Chinese zodiac – Megan Campisi and Pen-Pen Chen


What’s your sign? In Western astrology, it’s a constellation determined by
when your birthday falls in the calendar. But according to the Chinese zodiac,
or shēngxiào, it’s your shǔxiàng, meaning the animal
assigned to your birth year. And of the many myths explaining
these animal signs and their arrangement, the most enduring one is
that of the Great Race. As the story goes, Yù Dì, or Jade Emperor,
Ruler of the Heavens, wanted to devise a way to measure time,
so he organized a race. The first twelve animals to make it
across the river would earn a spot on the zodiac calendar
in the order they arrived. The rat rose with the sun
to get an early start, but on the way to the river, he met the horse, the tiger, and the ox. Because the rat was small
and couldn’t swim very well, he asked the bigger animals for help. While the tiger and horse refused, the kind-hearted ox agreed
to carry the rat across. Yet, just as they were about
to reach the other side, the rat jumped off the ox’s head
and secured first place. The ox came in second, with the powerful tiger right behind him. The rabbit,
too small to battle the current, nimbly hopped across stones and logs
to come in fourth. Next came the dragon,
who could have flown directly across, but stopped to help some creatures
she had encountered on the way. After her came the horse,
galloping across the river. But just as she got across,
the snake slithered by. The startled horse reared back,
letting the snake sneak into sixth place. The Jade Emperor looked out at the river and spotted the sheep, the monkey,
and the rooster all atop a raft, working together to push it
through the weeds. When they made it across, the trio agreed to give eighth place
to the sheep, who had been the most comforting
and harmonious of them, followed by the monkey and the rooster. Next came the dog,
scrambling onto the shore. He was a great swimmer, but frolicked in the water for so long
that he only managed to come in eleventh. The final spot was claimed by the pig, who had gotten hungry and stopped
to eat and nap before finally waddling
across the finish line. And so, each year is associated with one
of the animals in this order, with the cycle starting over
every 60 years. Why 60 and not twelve? Well, the traditional Chinese calendar
is made up of two overlapping systems. The animals of the zodiac are associated
with what’s called the Twelve Earthly Branches, or shí’èrzhī. Another system, the Ten Heavenly Stems,
or tiāngān, is linked with the five classical elements of metal, xīn, wood, mù, water, shuǐ, fire, huǒ, and earth, tǔ. Each element is assigned yīn or yáng, creating a ten-year cycle. When the twelve animals
of the Earthly Branches are matched with the five elements plus the yīn or the yáng
of the Heavenly Stems, it creates 60 years
of different combinations, known as a sexagenary cycle, or gānzhī. So someone born in 1980 would have
the sign of yáng metal monkey, while someone born in 2007
would be yīn fire pig. In fact, you can also have an inner animal
based on your birth month, a true animal based on your birth date, and a secret animal based on
your birth hour. It was the great race
that supposedly determined which animals were enshrined
in the Chinese zodiac, but as the system spread through Asia, other cultures made changes
to reflect their communities. So if you consult the Vietnamese zodiac, you may discover that you’re a cat,
not a rabbit, and if you’re in Thailand, a mythical snake called a Naga
replaces the dragon. So whether or not you place stock
in what the zodiac says about you as an individual, it certainly reveals much about
the culture it comes from.

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