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Culture of Chinese Zodiac

http://www.chinese.cn 09:18, January 13, 2011 Confucius Institute Online

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The twelve years of the Chinese zodiac

The twelve years of the Chinese zodiac 
The traditional Chinese lunar calendar has been used in China for over three millennia. It counts the years in sixty-year cycles, utilizing combinations of two series of numbers known as the ten Heavenly Stems and twelve Earthly Branches.

The Chinese zodiac consists of a twelve-year cycle, with each year corresponding to one of the twelve Earthly Branches and represented by a different animal. The year in which a person is born is equated with one of these twelve "Animal Years." The Chinese terms for the twelve Animal Years of the Chinese zodiac, shengxiao and shuxiang, may be translated as "birth-year categories," indicating that people's characters are determined to some extent by the year of their birth. The Chinese zodiac has always been very important to the Chinese people, particularly the personal characteristics associated with each of the Animal Years. Numerous legends and customs concerning the Animal Years have arisen over the ages, informing the Chinese imagination and exploration of the human condition. The Chinese zodiac is an ancient and important component of China's folk culture, vividly reflecting the rich psychology of the Chinese people.

The star signs of the Western zodiac are based on the month, rather than the year, of one's birth, and are named after constellations, rather than animals. It is believed that people's star signs may affect their character, behavior, and destiny, much like the Animal Years of the Chinese zodiac. Of course, the Chinese zodiac is calculated according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, unlike the Western zodiac, which uses the solar calendar.

The Origins and Order of the Twelve Animal Years

The twelve years of the Chinese zodiac cycle are each named after a different animal.2004 is the Year of the Monkey, jiashen (jia, the first Heavenly Stem, combined with shen, the ninth Earthly Branch) according to the numbering of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. The Year of the Monkey ends on February 8, 2005, the last day of the year jiashen. The following day marks the beginning of the year yiyou (yi, the second Heavenly Stem, combined with you, the tenth Earthly Branch), the Year of the Rooster. The year of a person's birth corresponds to one of the twelve Animals Years of the Chinese zodiac. When Chinese people talk about birthdays, they generally ask each other what their Animal Year is, rather than when they were born.

There is an old Chinese story concerning the origins of the Animal Years. It is said that the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese people, decided to hold a competition to select twelve animals to serve as his bodyguards. When this news was announced, it caused a great stir throughout the animal kingdom. Rat was supposed to sign up for Cat, but forgot. As a result, Cat was unable to compete, and Cat and Rat have been enemies ever since. Elephant, although the largest of the animals, lost when Rat distracted him by running up his trunk. In the end, the twelve victors of the competition became the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Of course, this story is merely apocryphal. Most likely, the ancient practice of naming the years after animals originated with the prehistoric worship of animal totems. Later, the Chinese zodiac was developed as a way to keep track of when people were born, with years and animals associated in a fixed order for clarity and ease of recording.

How was the order of the Animal Years determined? According to one legend, Ox, as the largest of the twelve selected animals, should have been in first place. However, Rat, the cleverest of the animals, cut to the front of the line by hopping onto Ox's back. How the order actually was determined will never be known.

The order of the twelve Animal Years of the Chinese zodiac is as follows: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.


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