The Shēngxiào (Chinese: 生肖), better known in English as the Chinese Zodiac, is a scheme that relates each year to an animal and its reputed attributes, according to a 12-year mathematical cycle. It has wide currency in several East Asian countries such as China and Korea and Japan.
Identifying this scheme using the term "zodiac" reflects several similarities to the Western zodiac: both have time cycles divided into 12 parts, each labels at least the majority of those parts with names of animals, and each is widely associated with a culture of attributing influence of a person's relationship to the cycle upon their personality and/or events in their life. Nevertheless, there are major differences: the "Chinese" 12-part cycle corresponds to years rather than months. The Chinese zodiac is represented by 12 animals, whereas some of the signs in the Western zodiac are not animals, despite the implication of the Greek etymology of "zodiac". The animals of the Chinese zodiac are not associated with constellations, let alone those spanned by the ecliptic plane.
In the Chinese Zodiac,twelve animals are used to denote the year of a person's birth: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. This is called a person's shengxiao (sheng means the year of birth, xiao means resemblance) or shuxiang. Since ancient times, Chinese have denominated years using combinations of 10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches to form sixty-year cycles. The 10 Heavenly Stems are: Jia, Yi, Bing, Ding, Wu, Ji, Geng, Xin, Ren and Gui. The 12 Earthly Branches are: Zi, Chou, Yin, Mao, Chen, Si, Wu, Wei, Shen, You, Xu and Hai. This year, February 9 is the first day of Yiyou, which is the twenty-second year of the sixty-year cycle.
As well as being associated with each year, the same twelve animals and Earthly Branches are assigned to each month and to a two-hour period of the day. Their origin is variously explained by a number of stories and theories.
One legend is that the order of animals is the result of squabbles that followed Emperor Xuanyuan's summoning them to be his imperial bodyguards. The rat tricked the cat out of going, and ever since they have been enemies. The rat also managed to drive the elephant away by climbing into his trunk. Of the other animals, the ox took the lead, but the rat jumped onto its back, hitching a ride into first place. The pig, busy complaining about this, came last. Since the tiger and dragon refused to accept the result, the Emperor compensated them with the titles "King of the Mountain" and "King of the Ocean," and placed them immediately after the rat and ox. But the rabbit would not accept this either, so raced and won against the dragon for fourth place. The dissatisfied dog bit the rabbit, and was punished with penultimate place. The other animals filled the other positions in the order in which they arrived.
The use of 12 animal symbols is not unique to the Hans in China. Many minority ethnic groups have their own series with minor differences. For example, Mongolians use tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat and ox; the Dai people use rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and elephant; and the Li people use rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep and monkey. Some believe that the Han inherited their twelve from northern tribes in ancient times. Another possibility is that exchange between different cultures cultivated the various sequences of twelve.
Shengxiao are held to be of great significance by many Chinese, and people tell numerous stories and follow rich and colorful customs associated with the Earthly Branches:
Chinese Zodiac Rat (1924 – 1936 – 1948 – 1960 – 1972 – 1984 – 1996 – 2008 – 2020 – 2032) Zi means seed, fruit, root and inheritance. It represents due north, the eleventh Chinese lunar month, when many animals begin to hibernate, and 11 PM to 1 AM, when the rat is most active.
Chinese Zodiac Ox (1925 – 1937 – 1949 – 1961 – 1973 – 1985 – 1997 – 2009 – 2021 – 2033) Chou corresponds to the ox. The shape of its Chinese character is like threads coming together to form a strong rope, so represents things being connected. It denotes the twelfth lunar month, known in some places as Muyue or "month of harmony." In northern China, it is freezing winter, when people gather round the fire and wait for spring. It also stands for 1 PM to 3 PM, when the ox is chewing the cud, and even the grass and trees are thought to be asleep.
Chinese Zodiac Tiger (1926 – 1938 – 1950 – 1962 – 1974 – 1986 – 1998 – 2010 – 2022 – 2034)
Yan is associated with northeast by east and 3 AM to 5 AM, when the tiger is most ferocious. In the Chinese lunar calendar it represents month one, the time trees begin to sprout.
Chinese Zodiac Rabbit (1927 – 1939 – 1951 – 1963 – 1975 – 1987 – 1999 – 2011 – 2023 – 2035)
Mao represents due east and 5 AM to 7 AM, when the moon, the home of the legendary jade rabbit, still hangs in the sky. It also denotes the second lunar month, a time of reawakening and new life. The rabbit's relatively meek temperament makes it an appropriate symbol for the sun just coming up over the horizon.
Chinese Zodiac Dragon (1928 – 1940 – 1952 – 1964 – 1976 – 1988 – 2000 – 2012 – 2024 – 2036) Chen symbolizes southeast by south and 7 AM to 9 AM, believed to be the best time for the magic dragon to generate rain and when the sun strengthens and everything is about to wake up. The dragon is the only mythological animal in the system, and was considered one of the "four sacred animals" along with the phoenix, kylin and tortoise. It was imagined to have a horse's head, snake's body and chicken's claws, with 81 scales on its back. It could fly and swim, and appear and disappear mysteriously. In the Chinese lunar calendar, it represents month three.
Chinese Zodiac Snake (1929 – 1941 – 1953 – 1965 – 1977 – 1989 – 2001 – 2013 – 2025 – 2037) Si represents south by east and 9 AM to 11 AM, when the snake is most lively. It is associated with the fourth lunar month, when green abounds and seedlings begin to grow.
Chinese Zodiac Horse (1930 – 1942 – 1954 – 1966 – 1978 – 1990 – 2002 – 2014 – 2026 – 2038) Wu stands for due south and the time around noon, when the sun is most severe. It is believed that 11 AM to 1 PM is when horses travel best. It also signifies the fifth lunar month, when farmers till the land and everything is full of vigor.
Chinese Zodiac Sheep (1931 – 1943 – 1955 – 1967 – 1979 – 1991 – 2003 – 2015 – 2027 – 2039) Wei represents the sixth lunar month and the height of summer. It also stands for 1 PM to 3 PM, when it is said that if a sheep eats a patch of grass it will grow more luxuriously, and for the direction of southwest by south. The sheep represents love, happiness and perseverance of spirit.
Chinese Zodiac Monkey (1932 – 1944 – 1956 – 1968 – 1980 – 1992 – 2004 – 2016 – 2028 – 2040) Shen's character in Chinese looks like two hands grasping a stick and, with one addition, becomes another shen meaning to stretch, with the implication of using one's mind to the full and with flexibility. 3 PM to 5 PM is believed to be when monkeys play.
Chinese Zodiac Roostor (1933 – 1945 – 1957 – 1969 – 1981 – 1993 – 2005 – 2017 – 2029 – 2041) You represents the eighth lunar month in early autumn and 5 PM to 7 PM, when the sun sets and the rooster returns home - an animal considered by many to be associated with prophecy. You also symbolizes due west.
Chinese Zodiac Dog (1934 – 1946 – 1958– 1970 – 1982 – 1994 – 2006 – 2018 – 2030 – 2042) Xu, associated with the dog, represents northwest by west, 7 PM to 9 PM, when the dog is said to watch the night, and the ninth lunar month, when grass and trees start to wither but the weather is pleasant.
Chinese Zodiac Pig (1935 – 1947 – 1959 – 1971 – 1983 – 1995 – 2007 – 2019 – 2031 – 2043) Hai represents month ten in the Chinese lunar calendar, when everything begins to stagnate. It also represents 9 PM to 11 PM, when all is silent apart from the pig's snores.
- Shelly H. Wu. (2005). Chinese Astrology. Publisher: The Career Press, Inc. ISBN 1-56414-796-7