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Why Do Chinese Have 12 Zodiac Animals?

The Chinese zodiac signs refer to the twelve animals that match the twelve earthly branches. They originated from animal worship in ancient times. According to the Qin dynasty bamboo slips excavated in Yunmeng Shuihudi of Hubei and Fangmatan of Gansu, a relatively complete zodiac system existed in pre-Qin ages (earlier to 221B.C). However, the oldest record identical to the modern 12 zodiac signs is from the book Lun Heng by Wang Chong from the Eastern Han dynasty. How did Chinese zodiac signs come into being?

12 Chinese Zodiacs

Origin of Chinese Zodiacs

There is no unanimous conclusion regarding how were Chinese zodiacs come into being, but there are some theories for reference.

Chinese Zodiac Was Introduced By Xiongnu

The history chronicles reveal that the Chinese zodiac was developed at least in the Eastern Han Dynasty. In old China, there were multiple ways to count years, but the best recognized chronological method was using the heavenly stems and earthly branches, which involve twelve earthly branches and ten heavenly stems. The method was useful for the Chinese rulers to make many significant decisions but too impractical for commons.

To make things easier, the reign titles were created to emphasize the specific reign era of an emperor (Emperor Wudi of Western Han dynasty was the first emperor to use reign title), which was simpler as most emperors had only one reign title during their reigns. However, things became complicated over time. Many emperors frequently changed their reign titles, even by year, which imposed great inconvenience on their subjects. In the Eastern Han dynasty, the animal years used by Xiongnu people were introduced into China.

Statue of Huhanye and Wang Zhaojun

Xiongnu people, commonly referred to as the nomadic tribes, lived Eurasia. They constantly moved to chase after the lush grasslands. Therefore, the Xiongnu people absorbed Han, Indian, Greek, and Iranian people cultures, forming a universal culture. The twelve animal signs were one of the cultures that nomadic people took from ancient India. According to The Secret History of the Mongols, the earliest record about Mongolian history, written in 1252, Mongolian people used animals to refer years a long time ago.Lun Heng by Wang Chong However, we know that nomadic people admired the strength and despised weakness. It’s understandable that tiger, horse, and dragon were used to signal years, but why were the domestic animals like rooster, goat, and pig listed as well? The possible explanation is that they just borrowed the idea from other cultures without change.

Qing dynasty scholar Zhao Yi conducted a series of investigations about the origin of Chinese zodiacs. He concluded that they were brought into China when Huhanye (a chief of the Xiongnu tribe) came to Chang’an and pledged allegiance to Emperor Hanxuandi. It’s possible that Huhanye brought the animal years to China. Wang Chong, an Eastern Han dynasty scholar, wrote about the exact same twelve zodiacs and their corresponding earthly branches in his work Lun Heng. He was born in 27 (within the reigning years of Emperor Guangwu of the Eastern Han dynasty). Therefore, the Chinese zodiacs must be popular in Eastern Han Dynasty, which roughly coincides with the inference that the Xiongnu Huhanye brought animal signs to China in the Eastern Han dynasty.

Chinese Zodiacs and the Indian Buddhist Culture

In the 6th century BC, Buddhism emerged in India, and the Buddhist classics Great Collection Scripture had the story that the twelve earthly animals converted to Buddhism, became divine beasts, and took turns to patrol and educate people. Those twelve animals included rat, ox, lion, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, slightly different from the Chinese zodiacs. In the Chinese version, the lion was replaced by the tiger. It was perhaps because there was no lion in Chinese soil. The fact is, after King Asoka of the Maurya Dynasty unified part of Indian areas, he held grand conferences to debate the Buddhist scriptures to promote Buddhism nationwide. He also sent monks to advocate Buddhism to neighboring countries, during which the Buddhist story of twelve animals was introduced into central Asia and accepted by Xiongnu people. It was no doubt a better way to keep track of years for Xiongnu people. Later, with further communication between Xiongnu people and Han people, the Indian zodiac culture was brought into China.

Indian Buddhism

Contradictory Evidence

In December 1975, many bamboo slips were excavated from the Shuihudi No.11 burial site of Hubei that dates back to the Qin Dynasty. Some of the bamboo slips were the reference books that were used by people in pre-qin ages to decide which days were suitable for events like weddings, childbirth, farming, and outgoing. One chapter mentioned the twelve zodiacs, which were quite different from the current ones we know. Only rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, and pig existed in that chapter. The descriptions about the animals displayed a sense of despise and contempt, which might verify that the zodiacs were introduced after all. Besides, the bamboo slips were buried in 217 BC, which is way earlier than the Eastern Han dynasty. Therefore, there is a slight chance that zodiac signs existed in the Zhou dynasty.
Qin Dynasty Bamboo Slips

Totem Theory

The primitive people used to take some animals or natural phenomenons as their god and totem. There are many images mixed with human beings and beasts in Legends of Mountains and Seas from the Warring States Period, symbolizing the totems for ancient tribes. For example, the totem for Xia people was bear or fish. The totem for the Shang people was bird. The totem for Zhou people was dragon, or bird, or turtle, or dog, or tiger. In the twelve animals, all of them, except the dragon, are common animals. They can be divided into two categories, the six domestic animals (horse, ox, goat, rooster, dog, and pig) that were bred for the economic end and six beasts (rat, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, and monkey) that were somewhat disturbing and threatening. Therefore, these animals were used as symbols for certain tribes. From the point of view, it has some senses.

Totems in Ancient China

In addition, the famous ethnologist Liu Raohan traced the totem tradition from the perspective of Yi nationality history. It turns out that the Yi people used twelve animals to count years a long time ago, and they still use these animals to name their streets like Tiger Street and Rabbit Street. The Historical Records also had an article telling that Emperor Huangdi taught bears, tigers, and pixius to fight against Emperor Yandi in the fields of Banquan. The animals mentioned are not actual animals, but the totems of the tribes that were involved. Thus, the Chinese zodiacs came from totem is convincing.

Why are there twelve animal signs?

The reason why there are twelve animal signs, not eleven or other numbers, lies in the series of generalization and summarization of natural phenomena. Chinese ancestors discovered that the seasons come and go by turns, and there is a cycle for the moon's wax and wane. Back in the Zhou dynasty, the Chinese discovered the mystery of the year, month, and hour, and invented the lunar calendar to count time. Meanwhile, number 12 is also used many other aspects, like the twelve weather conditions (dark, cloud, rain, snow, ice, fog, dew, frost, wind, sand, thunder, and light), twelve human meridians, twelve musical temperaments, twelve food, and twelve clothes. All these things are connected and interactive.
Twelve Zodiacs

How were the animals ranked, and why?

There are three theories regarding the ranking of the twelve animals. They each have their own merits, but all of them actually make sense.


It’s said that the Xuanyuan Emperor wanted to choose twelve animals as his palace guards. The cat asked the rat to sign up for him, but the rat forgot about it. Since then, cat and rat became enemies. Ox was meant to be the head of the twelve guards, but the rat secretly hid on ox’s back and moved first. Therefore, the rat became the first and the ox the second. Tiger and dragon were unwilling to submit; they were bestowed as the God of Mountain and the God of Sea, right after the ox. The rabbit was also not convinced but the result. He asked to race with the dragon, and when he made it ahead of the dragon, he was deliberately bit by the dog. Therefore, the rabbit was only ranked in fourth place. The dog was punished for the sabotage and made to be the second to the last. While the snake, horse, goat, monkey, and rooster competed with each other to get the place. Later, the pig came, and he was the last one.

Theory about the Animals’ Habits Chinese Zodiacs

Qing dynasty Liu Xianyan explained the animals' rank by relating their habits to the times of the day and further matching them to the earthly branches. Read more about the Chinese zodiacs and Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches.
Besides the two theories above, there are other theories explaining the rankings from the animals' physical shortcomings and the Yin and Yang philosophy. However, neither of the ideas gives a better illustration.

What’s the purpose of the zodiac sign?

Chinese zodiac signs are used in many aspects. One of the most important usages is in the spouse choosing. Chinese people use Chinese zodiac signs to find a suitable match. Suppose we know someone’s zodiac, his/her rough personality, fortune, career, life path, suitable zodiac matches, etc. are easy to predict. The information may not be that accurate but can still be used as a reference. According to certain rules, a zodiac often has a perfect match, several general matches, and a few bad matches. When choosing a spouse, the people with the unfortunate animal signs will be excluded.

Nowadays, the zodiac sign doesn’t play a very important role in spouse choosing, but it’s still a kind of criterion that Chinese use to predict the marriage. It’s also a polite way of asking people’s age without offending them. Be careful the next time when a Chinese asks about your zodiac. Your age, personality, future fortune, possible match, and more can be revealed.

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