Mingbai (明白, meaning “understand”), written by Christian Føhrby and Deng Jie, is a daily newsletter that drops knowledge on things “everyone in China knows, but almost nobody outside the country knows.” Sign up for it at GetMingbai.com.
十二生肖 (shíèr shēngxiào), the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac, are ever-present in Chinese art and pop culture, as well as in your destiny — if you believe that sort of thing.
Your birth year determines your animal — lunar year, that is, so if you’re born before the Chinese New Year in January or early February, you belong to the previous year’s animal.
Your zodiac says a lot about you, from personality to romantic compatibility — and incompatibility! As the Western astrological system, it’s complicated, but in general, you’ll want to avoid the animal exactly opposite yours in the wheel above when it comes to romance!
Many factors play in when it comes to determining your personality, including the time of day you were born, and which of the five elements apply to you, but in general, people are said to have the abilities and traits of the animal they correspond with — rats are cunning and creative, monkeys are lively and inventive, tigers are strong and reliable, and so on.
Like superstitions anywhere, most people don’t really believe they matter, but then again, judging by the internet and the tabloids, many people kinda believe they matter.
So why are there 12, and how did they get to be in that order?
It all started with a great race announced by the legendary Jade Emperor. There are many versions of the story, but in this one, the emperor announced that 10 (not 12) animals would have birth years named after them, and that a race to the imperial palace should determine which ones.
One of the obstacles to be crossed was a great river, and each animal had to find its way of crossing it. The rat and the cat were allowed to sit on the back of the friendly ox, who was great at swimming. The rat pushed the cat in the river (this is the reason cats hate rats to this day — and water, of course!) and jumped ahead of the ox to win first place. Then came the ox, and after him came the tiger, another strong swimmer.
Fourth in was the rabbit — it jumped from rock to rock, and finally found a log that drifted to the other shore. The dragon, whose magic powers should have easily given him first place, came in fifth because he had to stop on the way and help some people with their harvest by making it rain — and also because he saw a little rabbit desperately clinging to a log and decided to make a breeze to blow it safely to the shore.
Seventh came the horse, which was overtaken last minute by the snake, which had hid in its hoof. The goat, the monkey, and the rooster helped each other cross the river on a raft, taking eighth, ninth, and tenth place.
At this point, excited animals were pouring into the imperial palace. The Emperor was happy to have received the first 10 as planned, and he shouted to the notary, who was writing down the winners, “That’s enough!” (or 够, gòu, in Chinese). In the commotion, the notary misheard him and wrote “dog” (狗, gŏu) as the 11th animal on the list. The Emperor, alarmed, shouted, “Stop!” (住, zhù), but again the notary misheard him, and wrote “pig” (猪, zhū) as the 12th animal on the list. And that’s how there came to be 12, and not 10, animals on the list.
There are many more stories about the 12 animals, and much more to learn if you want to make a horoscope. However, we’ll leave you with a practical tip: You know asking people’s age is sometimes inappropriate — but asking for their zodiac isn’t, and since each animal only appears every 12 years, that’ll give you a pretty good clue!