The myth behind the Chinese zodiac

As opposed to the western astrology, that takes in note the constellations that determine when someone’s birthday falls in the calendar, the Chinese zodiac also known as shengxiao on the other hand, takes into consideration the animal or the shuxiang that is assigned to the birth year of an individual.


The Great Race

One of the most enduring myths of the system of zodiac. The Jade Emperor, Ruler of the Heaven also known as Yu Di wanted to figure out a way in order to be able to measure time. Hence, he organized a race. The rule was that the first 12 animals which make it across the river would get a spot in the zodiac calendar as per the order in which they arrive. It is believed that the rat upon reaching the river asked the horse and the tiger and other big animals to help it cross the river, to which they refused. Bu the ox on the other hand offered to help the rat. And just in time to reach the other side the rat jumped off the ox’s head and got the first place. The ox was then at the second place, tiger behind the ox, the rabbit slowly reached forth, then came the dragon – which could have flown easily but instead chose to help the creatures on the way. Then came the horse trying to make it to the sixth place, but the snake slithered by and reach sixth instead. The sheep, the monkey and the rooster were all on the same raft in the river working together. They among themselves decided to give the sheep the eighth place because of its comforting and harmonious nature. And then followed the monkey and rooster on ninth and ten places respectively. Then came the dog who could easily swam across the river but chose to frolic in it for some time and got the eleventh place instead. lastly, the pic, which decided to take a nap and the cross over, hence at the twelfth place.

The Cycle

Each year represents one of these animals, and the cycle starts over every sixty years. The reason behind it being sixty and not twelve, is because the Chinese calendar is made up two overlapping systems. The animals that are in this system are related to the – Twelve Earthy Branches also known as Shierzhi system. And the Ten Heavenly Stems also known as Tiangan system is related to the five elements – metal (xin), wood (mu), water (shui), fire (huo), and earth (tu).

And each of these elements is assigned a Yin or Yang, this creates a ten-year cycle. Now when the Earthly Branches system comprising of the animals is matched with the Heavenly Stems system of these five elements along with the Yin and Yang it ends up in the creation of the sixty different combinations. Thus, creating the Sexagenary Cycle also known as Ganzhi.

There are also the following types of animals one has: Inner Animal (Based on the birthday month), True Animal (Based on Birth Date) and also a Secret Animal (Based on the Birth Hour).

Although it was the great race that gave rise to this type of a zodiac system, but as it spread across the continent of Asia, other cultures made some changes and tweaked it to represent their respective communities. Therefore, one can say that this zodiac represents the different cultures it comes from.

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