The Chinese zodiac has twelve signs. Originally, these signs did not have
animals associated with them but were signs used to record dates. They were
called the 12 Earthly Branches and 10 Celestial Stems and their use went
back to the Shang dynasty. Later, each of the 12 earthly branches came to be
designated by an animal sign: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse,
sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar.
There is a folk story that describes how the animals were assigned to the
cycle of years. A long long time ago, the Lord Buddha summoned all the
animals together to assign each of them a year. When the cat heard the news,
he let his friend the rat know about it and the two animals decided to go
together the next day. However, the next day the rat did not wake the cat
who, being a cat and loving to nap, slept through the morning. Therefore,
the cat did not make it to the assembly on time and did not get a year. This
is why there is no year of the cat and this is why cats hate rats.
Illustration from a
Chinese astrological work
The rat, on the other hand, made it first there and received the first year.
He did not achieve this without trickery either. He knew that a small animal
like him would not be able to compete with the others, so he begged the ox
to let him ride on its head. The ox consented and they went together. Just
when they were about to arrive, the rat jumped off the ox's head and got
through the finish line first. This is why the year of the rat is the first
year in the cycle and the year of the ox is the second.
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