By Sherry Jin

The Chinese zodiac calendar scheme is well-known around the world. The zodiac system comprises a twelve year cycle, in which each year symbolically corresponds to an animal. The ‘Chinese animal zodiac’, known as Sheng Xiao (生肖), has a long history. Originating from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the zodiac was first used to measure the passage of time, in the form of hours in a day, as well as months and years in the lunar calendar.

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In that time, people used twelve animals (according to the order of rotation: the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Ram, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Pig) to differentiate the hours. For example, the Rat represented 23:00 to 00:59, the Ox represented 1:00 to 2:59, and so on. On a larger scale, the cycle was applied to years. Modern readers may be interested in why the rat begins the Chinese animal zodiac, and to answer this question, we shall turn back to a fairy story.

According to legend, the Jade Emperor of Heaven announced that he required twelve animals to complete the calendar. He issued a challenge to the animals of the world, saying that the first twelve animals to arrive in Heaven would be used to name the years. The animals heard this news and they were very happy. At that time, the Cat and the Rat were best friends. The Cat said, “We should arrive early to sign up, but I fear I will get up late, can you wake me up tomorrow?” The Rat promised to awaken the Cat and go together. However, in the morning, he did not wake up the Cat, instead departing for Heaven by himself. On the way, he met the Ox and the other animals. Fearing he would be late, he asked the Ox to carry him, and in exchange agreed to sing for him. In the end, the Ox was the first one to arrive in Heaven. He was very happy and believed he would be the first sign of the zodiac. However, he did not realize that just before his arrival to Heaven, the Rat had slid ahead of him, becoming the first animal of the Chinese zodiac. Meanwhile, the Cat failed to place as one of the first twelve arrivals. This is why cats hate rats, they still hold a grudge from the zodiac challenge.

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Nowadays, Chinese people do not use the twelve animals to measure the time of day like in the old times. Still, we use the zodiac to count the years. People still believe in the significance of their zodiac animal years, and will wear red cloth or jewelry during the year of their sign for good luck.