Explaining the Chinese Zodiac (Just in Time for Chinese New Year)

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According to legend, the celebration of the Chinese New Year began with a monster called Nian. The beast would arrive on the first day of the new year and devour crops, livestock and people. To protect themselves, people put food outside their doors, hoping that Nian wouldn't attack after eating. They also used firecrackers to scare it away. One year, Nian was driven from a village by a child wearing red clothes, so people began hanging red lanterns and scrolls on their windows and doors when a new year began—and Nian never returned. (Nian was eventually captured by Hongjunlaozu, a Taoist monk, and became his mount.)

Today, the Chinese New Year is celebrated with a festival that begins on the first day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar and ends on the fifteenth day (at least since the Han Dynasty—before that, dynasties celebrated during the twelfth, eleventh or tenth months). The Nian legend explains the food, the lanterns and the fireworks that we associate with the holiday, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who knows his Chinese zodiac sign, but doesn't know story behind it. Let's fix that.

What's your sign? (And what are the signs?)

While we have a linear concept of time in the West, the traditional Chinese calendar is cyclical and based on the cycles of the moon (China has used the Western calendar since 1911, but the lunar version is still used for holidays and festive occasions). A folk method for keeping track of the years is the twelve animal signs. Each year is assigned an animal according to this cycle: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep (or Ram), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar (or Pig).

In addition to the 12-year animal zodiac, there's a 10-year cycle of ten "heavenly stems" composed of the five elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) in their alternating yin and yang forms. Together, they form a 60-year cycle that begins with Yang Wood Rat and ends with Yin Water Boar. The last cycle began in 1984 and will end in 2044. Today, we enter the 26th year of the cycle—Yin Earth Ox.

Why are the animals in that order?

According to Chinese legend, when the system was created, thirteen animals argued about who got to be first in the cycle of years. The gods (or the Jade Emperor or the Buddha, depending on where you hear the story) decided that a contest was the only fair way to settle the matter. The animals would race across a river and be placed in the cycle in the order that they finished.

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The Tiger: Not far behind was the tiger, which had a harder time fighting the river's current than the ox, but was just strong enough to come in third.

The Rabbit & The Dragon: The rabbit arrived next, explaining that it planned to cross the river by jumping from one stone to another. Halfway across, though, the rabbit hopped onto a floating log and almost got swept downstream. The log somehow washed up on shore. The dragon, which flew across the river, came in fifth. The gods were curious as to why a mighty flying dragon didn't come in first place. The dragon explained that it had to stop to make rain for the earth. On the way to the finish line, the dragon saw rabbit clinging to a log and decided to do a good deed and blow the log to shore.

The Snake & The Horse: The horse then came galloping up onto the shore, only to be surprised by the sight of the snake, which had hidden itself wrapped around the horse's hoof. The startled horse fell backwards into the river, allowing the snake the sixth spot, while the horse placed seventh.

The Ram, The Monkey & The Rooster: The ram, monkey and rooster came ashore together after helping each other across the river. The rooster spotted a raft at the start of the race and agreed to share if the others rowed. The gods placed them in the order they stepped off the raft.

The Dog & The Pig: The dog, which was supposed to be the best swimmer of the bunch, came in eleventh place. It explained that it was so far behind because it hadn't had a good bath in a while and decided to take one in the river. The pig, which finished last, also got held up when it got hungry during the race and stopped for lunch and a nap.

And the 13th animal that started the race? The cat was also riding on the ox's back, but the rat pushed the cat into the river, costing it a spot in the cycle. This must be why cats don't like rats or water to this day.

Making pigs (and rats and oxen and rams, etc.) of ourselves

Each animal has a distinct personality, and the animal sign a person is born under is believed to bestow upon them certain traits and characteristics. But the animals assigned by year are not the only factor. There are also inner animal signs (representing the person you would like to be) assigned to the month you were born and secret animal signs (representing the side of you hidden from the rest of the world) assigned to the shichen or "large-hour" (two-hour period of the day) during which you were born. I was born in the year of the Rat, but I'm a Dog internally and a Monkey secretly.

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