History and legends of Chinese zodiac astrology

Chinese horoscope history and the legend of the Chinese zodiac
By KarmaWeather - 29 August 2022
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Historical overview of the origins and the diversity of Chinese astrology, followed by the legend of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

The Chinese zodiac is one of many Asian divinatory systems which co-exist and bring their reading according to precepts that combine astrology and numerology.

First, we will give you a brief historical overview of the origins and diversity of the Chinese horoscope and divination systems, followed by the legend of the 12 animals of the Chinese calendar, which uses the form of the tale to explain the order in which the 12 Chinese zodiac animals follow each other.

History of Chinese Astrology

If the Chinese astrological tradition goes back more than 4500 years, the system of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, associated with that of the 5 elements of cosmology (Wu Xing), actually came rather late in the Asian divinatory tradition (between the 9th and 10th centuries AD).

Since ancient times, while classical Chinese astrology, based on the observation and movement of stars, sun, comets, moon and planets, was the exclusive privilege of the emperor. Consequently, many alternative systems were developed that were not based on the sky's direct observation. These theories' basic principles rely mainly on numerology in association with the calendar (the Chinese lunar calendar or the traditional solar calendar, the Ba Zi).

Indeed, it was necessary to prevent the population from gaining access to the secrets of the astrology of the 111 stars, codified for the first time by the Yellow Emperor (黄帝 Huáng Dì) in 2637 BCE, and which would have allowed revolutionaries or invaders to predict the most propitious moments to attempt a coup d'état or an invasion. Among the alternative astrological systems, the astrology of the Yi King, the system of the 9 Palaces, the System of the 12 Palaces, the System of the 5 elements, the Oracle of the 4 Emperors, the System of the Black Dog, the 4 Pillars of Destiny or Ba Zi (related to the Ba Zi calendar which was imposed by the emperor to his population because it did not take into account the Moon and the lunar months which would have given them keys of interpretation of the astrology of the 111 stars), the System of the Divinatory Compass, as well as the 28 Lunar lodges.

The number 12 corresponds to the duration of a complete rotation cycle of Jupiter from a given point, called "Great Year", and whose sequence of ancient Chinese characters are called "Branches". Thus, the system of divination (or calculation of fate) based on the study of the 12 animals of the zodiac are the terrestrial branches (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig) , while the five elements are the celestial trunks (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood). Together they are associated with their double aspect (Yang, masculine or Yin, feminine), forming a cycle (12 x 5 = 60 years for the 12 signs, 5 x 2 = 10 years for the 5 elements that follow each other in pairs, with a Yang then Yin polarity) found in the Chinese calendar and used to calculate one's personal energetic cycle according to our date of birth.

Consequently, each year, season, month, day, hour and even minute correspond to specific animals and elements, which allows one to identify one's excesses and deficiencies, in order to seek solutions to correct them and to find one's personal harmony, in conjunction with nature. Thus, lunar Chinese astrology, in its zodiacal approach (with the 12 animals) but also in its other forms, has as its main objective to give rules and specific advice to each of us according to the specificities resulting from one's date of birth. It’s more a question of bending one's destiny than of attempting to conquer it by seeking to change it radically, which would correspond more to the solar vision of Western astrology.

The legend of the Chinese zodiac animals

According to popular legend, the mythical Emperor of Jade decided that a race between each of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac would define the order in which the years follow each other in the lunar calendar.

The goal was to join the Jade Emperor at the Gate of Heaven to share a banquet at his side, knowing that the main obstacle of the race was a river.

The malicious Rat arrived first thanks to the Ox on which he had climbed. After taking advantage of the efficient swimming of the Ox to cross the river, the Rat jumped quickly from the top of his companion's skull to reach the bank and finish the race in the lead, becoming the first animal of the Chinese zodiac.

The Tiger, though an excellent swimmer, took a little longer than the Ox because he was bothered by the eddies of the river. Thus, the Tiger became the 3rd animal of the Chinese zodiac just after the Ox. The Rabbit then arrived in turn, having taken advantage of his jumping skills to leap from obstacle to obstacle, including on the river. It was opportune that the stream was strewn with floating logs.

The Dragon arrived only in 5th place, to the great surprise of the Jade Emperor, because he was the only winged animal of the 12th. It seems that his delay was due to his greatness of soul and that on his way, he took time to help humans get rain for their fields before coming to the river's bank to blow on the wood log on which the Rabbit was stranded to reach the shore.

After the Dragon, the noble Horse finally presented itself to the Emperor of Jade. Suddenly, the Snake, hidden under the irons of the Horse, decided to jump out of hiding. Surprised by this unexpected arrival, the Horse reared up, which gave the Serpent time to pass in front of him. Thus, the Snake became the 6th animal of the Chinese zodiac and the Horse, fooled by his stowaway, the 7th animal.

The Goat, accompanied by the Monkey and the Rooster, finally presented themselves before the Emperor of Jade. It was by combining their strengths that they managed to reach the other side of the river, perched on an improvised raft. The Goat, the Monkey and the Rooster consequently became the 8th, 9th and 10th animals of the Chinese zodiac.

The Dog only got eleventh place because, not being able to resist the pleasures of the water, he took advantage of the crossing of the river to play and to wash.

The Pig was the last to cross the finish line, becoming the twelfth animal on the Chinese calendar. On the way, he could not resist the opportunity of a good meal. Dazed by his feast, he had fallen asleep, which could have disqualified him if he had not woken up from his nap just in time to finish the race.

An alternative version of this legend makes the cat a full-fledged character, who unfortunately couldn't not finish the race because he was tricked by the Rat. It is most likely that this version of the story is more recent. Similarly, the Cat is not really excluded from the Chinese zodiac since in reality the Cat and the Rabbit are one: in Southeast Asia and Vietnam in particular, the Cat replaces the Rabbit in the wheel of Asian zodiac. We can also note that yet another version of the tale, preferred by the Buddhists, from India to Tibet, replaces the Jade Emperor by Buddha.

Finally, in terms of more direct correlation this time, the Rat is also the Mouse, the Ox is also the Buffalo, the Rooster is also the Chicken and the Pig can also be the Wild Boar.

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