China: the Chinese Zodiac De-mystified

Culture Wars

If the calendar now universally used throughout the world is based on the earth’s rotation around the sun, the Lunar Calendar, which was used in China until 1911, was based on the moon’s rotation around the earth.


The Western calendar is linear in nature, whereas the Lunar Calendar is cyclical, running in five 12 year cycles. These comprise two factors.

The first are the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The second are the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

Combined, it thus it takes 60 years for one cycle to run its complete course. Which explains why 60th birthdays are such a big deal in Chinese society!

Legend Behind the Chinese Zodiac

So how did this all come about? According to legend, there were 12 animals, all wanting to lead the cycle. When the gods were asked to settle the dispute, they told the animals to race across the river. The first one to reach the other side would lead the cycle.

The animals all dove into the river and started to swim. Knowing that the ox was the strongest swimmer, the crafty rat jumped on his back. Just as the ox was about to reach shore, the rat jumped over his head, winning the race.

Thus the rat leads the cycle, the ox comes second, the tiger third, and so forth. The slovenly pig, meanwhile, came in last.

Lunar Calendar in Contemporary Chinese Society

While the Western – or Gregorian – Calendar has been used in China now for nearly 100 years, the Lunar Calender continues to play an important role in Chinese society. Chinese holidays – such as Chinese New Year, the Grave Sweeping Festival, the Moon Festival, and others – continue to be celebrated according to when they fall on the Lunar – rather than the Gregorian – Calender. As a result, Chinese New Year can fall as early as late January or as late as mid-February.

The Lunar Calendar is also used in fortune telling and determining auspicious and inauspicious dates to hold wedding banquets, official openings, and other key events. If the trains are particularly crowded in late evening in Hong Kong or Singapore, you can be sure that it is an auspicious date on which to get married!

Copyright: Michael Taylor