Chinese Zodiac Story: the 12 Zodiac Animal Race, plus other Legends

We all know very well what the twelve Chinese zodiac signs are: the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Pig. Everyone of us has a sign that corresponds to one of the twelve zodiac animals. But how did the Chinese zodiac animals originate? What is the story behind the Chinese zodiacs? How these animals were actually chosen? Why there are not cat or Qilin or phoenix?

The most famous/popular Chinese zodiac stories and origins include: first, the animal race held by the Jade Emperor from the heaven; second, the recommendations of the Four Heavenly Kings based on the talents of the animals; third, determined by the time of day when the animals are active; fourth, based on by the astrological constellations corresponding to the zodiac signs; and fifth, selected according to the yin and yang of the earthly branches. Archaeological findings indicate that the deer was also one of the twelve zodiac signs in early times.

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The Animal Race

This Chinese zodiac story is most widely known. The Jade Emperor of the heavenly court wanted to select the 12 zodiac signs, so he ordered the animals to run a race to get to the Southern Heavenly Gate on the first day of the first lunar month. 12 animals would be selected as the zodiac signs according to the order in which they arrived.

Chinese zodiac story


The Ox and the Rat were the first to arrive at the Heavenly Court and were seen by the Jade Emperor, who took a look at the Rat and said, "It's rare for a little rat to get up so early.” So he made the Rat the winner. The Rat ranked first!


The Jade Emperor took another look at the old Ox and said that you had carried the rat on your back all the way here, you were sophisticated and helpful by nature, and got up at dawn to help people plough the fields, so you ranked second.


Later, the tiger came in with great majesty. The Jade Emperor was delighted that there was such a powerful beast on earth. Tiger was selected the third zodiac animal.


By this time all the animals had arrived in Heaven, the Jade Emperor saw the little rabbit, which looked like the Jade Rabbit in Guang Han Palace. The Jade Emperor could not help but think of the beautiful Fairy Chang'e, so he made the little rabbit the fourth zodiac sign.


At this point, the God Tai Shang Lao Jun reminded the Jade Emperor that he had already chosen four earthly animals and should add a heavenly one to his list. Of course, the great dragon should be the fifth Chinese zodiac animal!


Tai Shang Lao Jun also said that while there were giant dragons in the sky, there were also small dragons on the ground. The Jade Emperor followed the guidance of Tai Shang Lao Jun and saw a small snake coiled on a stone vessel. The Jade Emperor said, "Good, one from the heaven, and another from the earth, let's make the snake the sixth sign of the zodiacs!


Back to the age of mythology, the horse had wings and was called the Heavenly Horse. He could fly in the sky, run underground and swim in the water. The Jade Emperor was very much fond of horse and made him the seventh sign of the zodiacs.


In mythology, the goat was an auspicious object, as evidenced by the idiom of "three goats bring bliss". According to legend, a sacred goat delivered many grain seeds to the people, which moved the Jade Emperor and made goat the eighth animal in the Chinese zodiac.


The Shen hour falls between 15:00 and 17:00, the time when monkeys like to come down to the mountains for food, and are most active. There were also monkeys in Heaven, and the long chirping of monkeys was heard at this time, hence the money was the ninth zodiac sign.


It was dawn when the rooster flew to a high place and crowed to announce the dawn with a loud voice.

The Jade Emperor then asked Tai Shang Lao Jun, “What is the roost doing?” The Jade Emperor said, "Your majesty, people work at sunrise and rest at sunset, the rooster is announcing the dawn.”

The Jade Emperor was delighted, and named the roost the tenth Chinese zodiac sign.


The Jade Emperor was so afraid of the Queen Mother (Jade Emperor’s wife) that he was worried that she would be angry if he included rabbit in the 12 zodiac sign. So he made Erlang Shen’s Roaring Dog the eleventh zodiac animal (Erlang Shen was Queen Mother’s nephew).


According to folklore, when the Jade Emperor ascended to heaven and become the mighty king, he took all his poultry up to heaven, but left the pigs behind by accident. Later on, there was a saying goes that one man's path is followed by a dog's. When the Jade Emperor saw the arrival of the pig, he felt guilty and gave the pig the last position.

Why are there no cats in the 12 zodiac signs?

chinese zodiac pig years

A long time ago, the cat and the rat were brothers. The cat was the older brother and the rat was the younger brother. They usually get together for a drink.

On this day, a message came from the Heavenly Court, informing all the animals in heaven and on earth to join the 12 Chinese zodiac signs.

The cat was lazy by nature and liked to travel at night and sleep during the day, so he said to the rat, "Brother, we must go together for the 12 zodiac signs race tomorrow, but I am afraid I will not wake up in the morning. You are up early, so please wake me up by then.” The rat said, "Don’t worry. I'll take care of that."

The two brothers were so full of wine and food that they drifted off to sleep.

At five o'clock in the morning, the rat woke up and going to the toilet when he ran into the ox, who was leaving the house.

The ox said, "I am going to the Heaven to run for the 12 zodiac signs. It is a long way to go, so I m leaving now.” The rat heard that it was such a long journey and he was so small, so he jumped on the back of the ox and raced with the bull, forgetting all about the cat.

After the zodiac signs had been chosen, the rat returned home, just as the cat had woken up and asked if they were going to run for the zodiac. The rat could only tell the truth. And no matter how much he apologized, the cat was furious!

From then on, the cat told his children and grandchildren not to spare any rat in the future. The cat and the rat are arch-enemies.

The Chinese Zodiac Signs Were Determined by the Time of Day When the Animals Were Most Active

In ancient China, the twelve hours of the day were used to keep time, and the activity of animals at different times of the day was used to determine the twelve signs of the zodiac.

★ At the period of the day from 11p.m to 1am., rats are most active.

★ At the period of the day from 1 a.m. to 3 p.m., cows are ruminating.

★ At the period of the day from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., the tiger is at its fiercest.

★ At the period of the day from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., the rabbit is busy pounding medicine.

★ At the period of the day from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., the dragon is moving clouds and spreading rain.

★ At the period of the day from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., the snake becomes active.

★ At the period of the day from 11 a.m. to 1p.m., the Heavenly Horse moves in the sky.

★ At the period of the day from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., it is a good time for sheep to graze.

★ At the period of the day from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., monkeys are crowing.

★ At the period of the day from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m, night falls and the roosts return to their houses

★ At the period of the day from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. , the dog keeps watch a night.

★ At the period of the day from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., the pigs snore to sleep.

The recommendations of the Four Heavenly Kings Based on the Talents of the Animals

chinese zodiac dragon

Legend has it that the Jade Emperor wanted to choose the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, so the Four Heavenly Kings recommended to the Jade Emperor based on the usefulness of the animals. The cat could read the scriptures; the ox could plough the fields; the tiger and monkey could govern the mountains; the rabbit worshipped the moon; the dragon and snake ruled the water; the horse drove the cart; the goat and pig could be used as tribute for rituals; the rooster announced the dawn and the dog guarded the door.

The twelve zodiac signs are selected according to the talents of the animals. However, as the  story of the rat and the cat we told earlier, in which the rat stole the cat's place in the Chinese zodiac.

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