Everything You Wanted to Know about Chinese Zodiac

China has a rich history and mythology that shaped its culture and made it such a great place to visit. If you plan to work 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 Chinese horoscope is a part of an important legend. Scroll down to learn more about zodiac signs, their history, and uses.

History of the Chinese zodiac

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, he organized a race, or that he had a banquet.

Anyway, regardless of the version all animals headed to the palace including rat and cat, good friends. The cat asked a rat to help him sign up once they’re there, but rat forgot. Another version suggests rat pushed the cat and it fell into the lake. 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 Chinese zodiac is, in fact, the order of animals arriving at a banquet or finishing the race: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, chicken, dog, and pig.

How is Chinese zodiac determined?

Unlike 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 “regular” zodiac, horoscope in China is trickier and revolves around the year of birth.

You see, Chinese zodiac is based on a 12-year cycle where each year is related to a specific animal sign. For instance, 2018 is 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. This year, Chinese New Year was celebrated on February 5.

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


Zodiac sign Recent years General characteristics
Rat 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960 Clever, quick-witted, funny, charming, loyal, generous, curious
Ox 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961 Goal-oriented, leader, stubborn, detail-oriented, introverted, protective, reliable
Tiger 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962 Ambitious, moody, charming, courageous, strong leaders, warm-hearted
Rabbit 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963 Sincere, compassionate, popular, strive to avoid conflicts
Dragon 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964 Charismatic, powerful, sometimes egoistic, born leaders, lucky
Snake 2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965 Generous, sometimes jealous, good with money, analytical, insecure, smart
Horse 2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966 Impatient, energetic, self-reliant, love traveling
Goat 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967 Creative, unorganized, supportive, loving
Monkey 2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968 Upbeat, energetic, great listeners, heartbreakers
Rooster 2017, 2005, 1993, 1981, 1969 Resourceful, practical, honest, perfectionists, straightforward
Dog 2018, 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970 Honest, loyal, temperamental, sensitive
Pig 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971 Intelligent, good-mannered, nice, tasteful


Zodiac uses

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

  • To understand someone’s personality
  • Check 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 the time:

Zodiac Time of day
Rat 11pm-1am
Ox 1am-3am
Tiger 3am-5am
Rabbit 5am-7am
Dragon 7am-9am
Snake 9am-11am
Horse 11am-1pm
Goat 1pm-3pm
Monkey 3pm-5pm
Rooster 5pm-7pm
Dog 7pm-9pm
Pig 9-pm-11pm

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