The famed Chinese zodiac comprise what the Chinese called the silent rulers of the heart. These are the noble animals that cast their strengths and soft spots over us in a delicate balance from the moment we are born. Gaining and heeding the wisdom of the zodiac meant prosperity and good fortune while minimizing adversities, because we live in harmony with nature and our fellowmen.
The choosing of animals for the zodiac may have been influenced by the primordial animal worship in long-ago China. Others believe that Chinese zodiac or astrology has its origins in the Han Dynasty, when the ancient Chinese were studying the power of the number 12 observed in the hour and the year.
Many scholars claim that there were 12 cooperating tribes in ancient China. These tribes formed a congregation that chose one tribal leader to head the assembly for a year. The tribes venerated animals and used animal totems that were later on adopted in the Chinese zodiac.
One side of the story tells that the nomadic tribes were the first to use animals in astrological oracles, although artifacts from the Warring States Period of 475-221 BCE suggest that animal-oriented astrology goes back much earlier.
The Western zodiac reflects the circle of constellations across the sky. If we think about it, the all-animal Chinese zodiac is more appropriately called, as zodiakos means animals, and the Western zodiac has five non-animals. These are Virgo, Libra, Gemini, Sagittarius and Aquarius.
Legends about the Animals of Fate
There are fascinating legends about our majestic circle of creatures. One legend recalls Buddha calling for all of the earth’s creatures to bid them farewell. When they came, he gave special blessings to the 12 animals that came earliest. The Buddha gave each of the 12 a whole year to reign and exert their influence in man’s destiny.
Another zodiac legend involves the Jade Emperor. Once, long ago, the Jade Emperor, Yu Huang Di, became curious about the animals that roam the earth. Even though he ruled all the heavens and worlds, he has not really studied the beasts of the earth. He sent his emissaries to observe the earth’s creatures and gather the 12 most interesting animals for him to see.
And so the messengers combed through the human world and observed every creature they can find in land, air and sea. After some time, the emissaries returned with what they believed were the most noteworthy creatures on earth. They presented each of the animals and explained their extraordinary virtues before the Jade Emperor. The ruler of all heaven and earth was pleased with the 12 animals, so much so that he allowed each one to be overseer of man’s destiny. Each creature will rule for a period of 12 moons for eternity. From then on, the ancient people set their time by this honored circle of animals.
Every creature in the ancient tale has its share of trickery and gallantry, except perhaps the dragon, which is heroic in most of these Chinese zodiac legends. The dragon could easily win the race as it is the only one who can command air and the rain, soar and swim with speed, but it chose to be diverted in many tales by saving whole river tribes caught in a flood, by creating rain when he espied droughts from afar, and by helping his fellow animals such as the rabbit during a race.
Our year of birth is called Benming Nian in Chinese. Every 12 years, on the year of our symbolic animal, we are in direct confrontation with the Tai Sui or the Grand Duke. In feng shui, or Chinese geomancy, the Tai Sui is the god who is in charge of people’s fortune for 12 lunar months. One offends the Tai Sui on everyone’s year of birth and every 12 years hence. According to feng shui masters, he does not like to be confronted. The remedy for this is an image of the Tai Sui or Grand Duke of the Year. This is kept in one’s person or purse, or on display in one’s home with an accompanying protective mantra to deflect the Tai Sui’s harmful influences.
What are the Differences between the Western Zodiac and the Chinese Zodiac?
The most obvious difference would be the use of monthly representations of animals and humans for each month (sun signs) in Western astrology and Chinese astrology’s use of animals for each year. Western astrology uses the constellations and the movement of the planets for interpreting oracles and birth charts. The Chinese zodiac has a rotating set of 12 animals and five elements based on the ancient Chinese’s philosophy and natural science.
Western and Chinese zodiacs use very different methods and means of interpreting. In Chinese astrology, the 12 animals govern not only a whole year. They also take turns in influencing the hour, day and month. Two people born in the same year were not expected to possess the same traits and luck, which would be determined by the Four Columns of Destiny.
The Chinese astrological year begins at the start of the spring season, almost always on February 4. Chinese astrologers base the beginning of the year on the exact midway point between the spring equinox and the shortest day of the previous year. Another point of basis for knowing one’s animal year is the Chinese Lunar Year, which begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice. If you are not sure which to follow, it is best to consult a professional Chinese astrologer for a more precise astrological profile.
The Daily Cycle of the Zodiac Animals
The Chinese knew that the bigger cycles of the year are also the smaller cycles of hours, days and months. The Chinese begins the day at midnight, with the Rat representing the hidden, rejuvenating forces at work at night when every creature is at rest. The Rabbit rises with the sun and is an emblem of dawn, morning and springtime.
When the sun is at its hottest, the Horse and the Sheep take over and rule until the afternoon, which is the domain of the dynamic Monkey. The twilight is the realm of the Rooster, who announces the end of toil and the end of the day. When night comes, the Dog stands guard and the Pig symbolizes restful sleep and peaceful night. The Snake and the Dragon are the evening constellations watching the earth from above.
The noble Tiger is the officiator of the New Year. The reliable Ox symbolizes the planting and harvest times and months. The Ox, the Pig and the Rat are also symbols of the winter, while the Horse also symbolizes the summer solstice or the longest day.
Chinese Zodiac Alliances
In a natural striving toward balance and enlightenment, the animals of the zodiac form special groups, enjoying the company of certain animals and feeling animosity toward some.
The Rat (water), the Dragon (earth) and the Monkey (metal) band together. Their association is one of dynamism, friendly competition and versatility. The flashy Dragon learns lessons of modesty from the Rat, while the nervous Rat and edgy Monkey bask under the Dragon’s calm courage and confidence. Although quick-witted and optimistic, the Monkey greatly benefits from the Rat’s earthy wisdom, and he presents humor and playfulness for the benefit of the Dragon.
The alliance of the Ox (earth), the Snake (fire) and the Rooster (metal) is characterized by the achievement of goals, intelligence and wisdom. The exceptionally strong Ox clamors for the Snake’s gift for diplomacy, elegance and poise. The Snake aspires to gain Rooster’s dignity and honesty and the Ox’s effortless strength. The Rooster admires the Ox’s sturdiness and the Snake’s alert intelligence.
The Tiger (wood), the Dog (earth) and the Horse (fire) make up the collaboration of freedom fanatics. The Horse is the ultimate balancer of the Tiger and the Dog. The Tiger’s excitable nature is balanced by the Horse’s wit and frankness. The Horse also teaches the Dog how not to be gullible and easily second-guessed. The Tiger, being wanderlust, also benefits from the Dog’s constancy, and sense of responsibility and duty. The Dog learns from the Tiger’s quick wisdom and lightning response to emergencies. Meanwhile, the Horse provides lessons of forgiveness and easy adjustment to change for both the Tiger and the Dog.
The Rabbit (wood), the Sheep (fire) and the Pig (water) are in the business of peace-keeping and compassion. This partnership enjoys perfect cooperation and they are all determined to avoid violence, risks and challenges. The Pig listens to the Sheep for advice on humility, steadfastness and endurance, while the Sheep and the Rabbit goes to the Pig for lessons on generosity, liveliness and optimism. Both the Pig and the Sheep take comfort in the Rabbit’s tender care and sympathy.
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Chinese Zodiac Symbols