Chinese Zodiac: Traditions and Myths

Legends and mythology are a big part of Chinese culture, especially in relation to the Chinese Zodiac (生肖 in Chinese). The 12 animals that appear on the Chinese Zodiac calendar include the rat, buffalo, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. It’s an unusual combination of animals to be sure, and their appearance on the Chinese Zodiac is a topic of countless legends deeply embedded in Chinese mythology and culture.

Chinese Zodiac Origin Story

There are many versions of Chinese zodiac stories; the most well known of the Chinese zodiac legends states that Buddha invited all animals to participate in a race. The prize was a coveted position on the Chinese Zodiac calendar. The first 12 animals to cross a river would appear on the Chinese Zodiac calendar in the order in which they completed the race.

The first animal thus to make it across the finish line according to the legend was the rat. It seems unlikely that such a small animal could win such a strenuous race, especially when one considers the caliber of contestants. The story explains that the rat used his brain rather than his “brawn” and hitched a ride on what it perceived was the mightiest swimmer which was the buffalo. Just before the buffalo reached the opposite shore, the rat jumped off the buffalo’s back and crossed the finish line before the buffalo, putting the rat in first place and the buffalo, often depicted as an ox, second, the order they appear in the Chinese zodiac.

As for the other animals: The tiger, also being strong, came in third, followed by the rabbit that jumped his way was across, helped during the last stretch by the dragon. The snake hid in the hoof of the horse, which is how it managed to make it across the river. At the last minute the snake jumped out and scared the horse into seventh place. The sheep, monkey and rooster helped one another across and earned their spots on the calendar as well. The dog made it too, but felt a bath was more important than how he placed which is why the year of the dog is eleventh. The next and final position is occupied by the pig, who apparently decided to stop halfway through for a snack.

Traditions and Characteristics of the Zodiac Animals

Each year of the Chinese lunar calendar is associated with one of the 12 animals from the Chinese zodiac. Each sign has particular characteristics, reflected in the people born in that year, and each year will also have its own characteristics related to the zodiac sign.

The upcoming Chinese Spring Festival celebration will officially mark the end of the year of the rabbit and move into the 6th sign- the Year of the Dragon. According to Chinese tradition, those born in the year of the dragon, exhibit very strong characteristics. They are strong-willed and very independent, however this strength also means that dragons can have the tendency to be stubborn. Because of the mystique and legend behind the figure of the dragon, this is considered the greatest of the 12 signs given the reverence held for the mythical creature.

There is also a popular tradition in China associated with the Zodiac calendar, in that you should wear red throughout the year marked by your sign. Thus, starting with the year in which you were born, every 12 years you will find a (traditional) Chinese person wearing read in some form or another. This year of your birth is known as “Ben Ming Nian”(Chinese:本命年). Since it is considered a year of difficulties, people can improve their luck during this time by wearing red, as red is thought to be a powerful color for exorcising evil spirits and invite good luck. The custom of wearing red dates back to the primitive society when people simply thought red was the color of the sun, blood, and fire, however this association with red has continued into modern day. The day before the year begins, you will find many people wearing red, anything from red underwear or belts to socks, shirts, and shoes, thus inviting a carefree Ben Ming Nian. After this first day though, people’s whose Ben Ming Nian it currently is will be found wearing at least one item of red clothing at any given time.

There are many that also believe that you should not get married during your Ben Ming Nian. If you do happen to marry during this time, the bride should include a gift of Artemisia Argyi, also known as Wormwood leaf, with her dowry by putting it in a piece of furniture in order to insure wellness and good luck.

The 12 animals are also linked to the traditional Chinese agricultural calendar, which runs alongside the more well known lunar calendar. Instead of months, this calendar is divided into 24, two-week segments known as Solar Terms. Each animal is linked to two of these solar terms for a period similar in length to a Gregorian month. Unlike the 60-year lunar calendar though, which can vary by as much as a month in relation to the Gregorian calendar, the agricultural calendar varies by only one day, as it begins on either the 3rd or 4th of February every year. Also unlike the cycle of the lunar years, which begins with the Rat, the agricultural calendar begins with the Tiger as it is the first animal of spring.

Hopefully you were able to learn something new from this post on a very important and deep seeded Chinese tradition. From everyone here at CPG, we would like to wish all of our readers a happy and prosperous Year of the Dragon!

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