The 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac 十二生肖

Cyndi Chen, 陈老师 chen2 lao3 shi1, Chinese Language Instructor

The Chinese Zodiac has 12 signs or animals, each representing a year in the Chinese lunar calendar:

  • 鼠 (shǔ) mouse
  • 牛 (niú) ox, cow
  • 虎 (hǔ) tiger
  • 兔 (tù ) rabbit
  • 龙 (lóng) dragon
  • 蛇 (shé) snake
  • 马 (mǎ) horse
  • 羊 (yáng) sheep, goat
  • 猴 (hóu ) monkey
  • 鸡 (jī) chicken
  • 狗 (gǒu) dog
  • 猪 (zhū) pig

Together, these animals are called 生肖 (Shēngxiào).  We believe that the order of the zodiac comes from the legend about the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝Yùhuángdàdì) and the race amongst the zodiac animals.

According to this story, the Jade Emperor had twelve spots open for animals to be his “palace guard”, and the exact position of the guards would be determined by a great race.

On the night before the race, the cat asked the mouse (who was his friend at the time) to wake him up the morning of the race so that they could start out together. Come race day, however, the mouse left his friend snoozing steadily as he went off to compete.

Now the mouse, having tiny little legs, decided to partner up with the cow in order to secure a better position. He said to the cow, “Let me ride on your back and I will sing a song for you that will surely help you win this race!” Naturally, the well-mannered cow agreed and sped off in front of the entire crowd. Just before the finish line, the clever mouse quickly jumped from the cow’s head to win first place and become the first year of the zodiac.

Meanwhile, the poor cat, which had woken up very late, came in the last and did not make to one of the palace guards. That is why, to this day, the cat and mouse are forever enemies.

2 thoughts on “The 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac 十二生肖

  1. I like the Chinese zodiac system and the story behind it all is incredibly interesting and very cool. I like learning about Chinese culture through little snippets like this; so many intriguing parts of Chinese history can be found in Chinese characters, sentences, or things like zodiac signs. One of the best parts about learning Chinese is that throughout all the grammar, writing, and learning the characters, I learn certain cultural aspects of the Chinese and history of China, and I think that is unlike any other written and spoken language…it is something I really like.

  2. I guess I never really thought about how the Chinese Zodiac originated, so this was very interesting to read. I knew from going to various Chinese restaurants that there are 12 signs/animals of the Chinese Zodiac and that certain animals are enemies while other animals would make a good couple, but I never knew how in depth it could go. I also think that the Dragon is supposed to be the best year of the Chinese Zodiac (at least that’s what my Chinese teacher in China told me), and many Chinese people will try to have a baby born in the year of the Dragon for good luck. Anyways, this post makes me want to research more about the history and meaning behind the Chinese Zodiac.

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