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The Origins and Order of the Twelve Animal Years

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The twelve years of the Chinese zodiac cycle are each named after a different animal.2004 is the Year of the Monkey, jiashen(jia, the first Heavenly Stem, combined with shen, the ninth Earthly Branch) according to the numbering of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. The Year of the Monkey ends on February 8,2005, the last day of the year jiashen. The following day marks the beginning of the year yiyou(yi, the second Heavenly Stem, combined with you, the tenth Earthly Branch), the Year of the Rooster. The year of a person’s birth corresponds to one of the twelve Animals Years of the Chinese zodiac. When Chinese people talk about birthdays, they generally ask each other what their Animal Year is, rather than when they were born.

There is an old Chinese story concerning the origins of the Animal Years. It is said that the YellowEmperor, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese people, decided to hold a competition to select twelve animals to serve as his bodyguards. When this news was announced, it caused a great stir throughout the animal kingdom. Rat was supposed to sign up for Cat, but forgot. As a result, Cat was unable to compete, and Cat and Rat have been enemies ever since. Elephant, although the largest of the animals, lost when Rat distracted him by running up his trunk. In the end, the twelve victors of the competition became the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Of course, this story is merely apocryphal. Most likely, the ancient practice of naming the years after animals originated with the prehistoric worship of animal totems. Later, the Chinese zodiac was developed as a way to keep track of when people were born, with years and animals associated in a fixed order for clarity and ease of recording.

How was the order of the Animal Years determined? According to one legend, Ox, as the largest of the twelve selected animals, should have been in first place. However, Rat, the cleverest of the animals, cut to the front of the line by hopping onto Ox’s back. How the order actually was determined will never be known.

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