Erica Fairchild

China has a rich history and mythology that shapes its culture and makes it a great place to visit. If you plan to teach in China it’s useful to learn a thing or two about the culture of this remarkable country and Chinese zodiac is a big part of it. You’re probably familiar with some signs, but most people are unaware that the Chinese horoscope is a part of an important legend. Scroll down to learn more about zodiac signs, their history, and uses.


Many theories surround the history of Chinese horoscope, it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact era when it all started. Animals of the zodiac were found on the pottery artifacts dating back to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

The origins of the Chinese zodiac are also associated with the Silk Road. Basically, it is believed animals of the horoscope were brought to China by Buddhists via the famous trade route. Not all scholars agree, though. Some of them argue that astrology beliefs of ancient China precede the arrivals of Buddhists from India. One theory is that Chinese horoscope has a lot to do with nomadic tribes in ancient China who created a calendar named after animals they hunted at the time.

As you can see the history of Chinese zodiac isn’t as quite clear, but a folk tale about its origin is interesting. The legend says that Buddha or the Jade Emperor invited all animals to be a part of the calendar, but only first 12 to arrive would be selected. Other versions of the tale suggest the Emperor needed 12 guards of the palace, organized a race, or had a banquet.

Regardless of the version, all the animals headed to the palace including rat and cat, good friends. The cat asked a rat to help him sign up once they arrived, but rat forgot. In another version, the rat pushed the cat and it fell into the lake. Either way, the two animals became mortal enemies. The rat was the one who arrived first, not because he was faster than other animals, but because he was smarter. He traveled on ox’s back, then jumped in front of him to arrive first.

The order of animals in the Chinese zodiac is, in fact, the order of animals arriving at the banquet or finishing the race: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, chicken, dog, and pig.


Unlike the horoscope we use today, which is based on the sun’s movements, Chinese astrology is based on the lunar year. While you just need to know day and month of birth to determine your (or someone else’s) sign in the “regular” zodiac, horoscope in China is trickier and revolves around the year of birth.

You see, the Chinese zodiac is based on a 12-year cycle where each year is related to a specific animal sign. For instance, 2018 is the Year of the Dog. Previous years of this zodiac included 2006, 1994, 1970, etc. Year of the Dog (or some other zodiac) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your lucky year; it is considered as a challenge or obstacle you need to conquer to prove yourself.

Interestingly, the Chinese New Year doesn’t have an exact date. It usually falls between January 21 and February 20.

The Twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, their characteristics, and recent years are shown in the table below:

The Twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac


The first thing you notice when living in China is that the tradition is present in every aspect of life. The Chinese zodiac has many uses, even today, and some of them include:

  • Understanding someone's personality

  • Checking compatibility before getting married

  • A polite way to find out someone’s age without asking “how old are you”

  • Themes for paper cutting

  • Postage stamps

  • Fashion and accessories

  • Kung Fu (it contains 12 zodiac cultural elements)

  • Art

  • Festivals

  • Every zodiac corresponds to a city or town in China e.g. Beijing is Tiger City

A little known fact is that Chinese zodiac is also used to tell time:

How chinese zodiac tell time

The Chinese zodiac is mysterious and interesting at the same time. It is deeply intertwined in every part of life in China and it’s practical to learn the basics if you want to live and work in this country. Your zodiac sign is almost like a spiritual identity card.

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