The Chinese Year or the Chinese zodiac (Sheng Xiao in the Chinese language) simulates the Western zodiac in that as the latter is divided into months, the former is divided into years. As there are twelve Western zodiac months there are twelve Chinese zodiac years. The Western zodiac follows the sun whereas the Chinese follow the moon. Each year is symbolized by a specific animal with its well-known attributes. It is widely practiced not only in China but also in other parts of East Asia, in particular Vietnam and Korea.
In the order they are placed, the animals symbolizing the twelve years of the Chinese zodiac are:
The Chinese believe strongly in mythology and legends. Many legends surround the inclusion of these diverse animals in the Chinese zodiac and in that particular order. Accordingly, they have this legend behind the Chinese Year. One legends tell that in early times there was no way to mark the times. So, during his time, Buddha decided to call all animals to participate in a race. They were to cross a river and end at the finish line beyond it. The prize was that they would have their positions in the annual calendar in the sequence in which they completed the race. Only the above mentioned twelve animals came. The race started. With the prize in focus, each used their brains, their brawn or their craftiness.
Interestingly, the rat, though smallest amongst the twelve, emerged a winner. It climbed on the buffalo which was leading the race. When the buffalo reached the other river bank, it immediately jumped off the buffalo’s back and reached the finish line first. The buffalo came second. The tiger, a good swimmer came in third. The rabbit came fourth. It jumped from one stone on to the other then clung to a floating log of wood. In the last moments the dragon helped it to reach the other side of the river bank. And so the dragon came in fifth. The snake came sixth. It craftily hid in the hoof of the horse while the latter crossed the river and jumped off towards the end of the race scaring the horse which therefore came in seventh.
The rooster, monkey and the goat helped each other across the river and got the position in sequence in which they ended the race. The dog, a good swimmer, was expected to perform better, obtained the eleventh position. The reason was that the dog had not taken a bath for several days and seeing the fresh, clean water of the river, it decided to take a bath before proceeding with the race. The pig was last and not without a reason! It spent a good time in feasting and later took a good rest but finally did finish the race.
Some legends have that instead of Buddha, it was the Jade Emperor who had invited the animals.