十二生肖 – The 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac

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With a new year brings a new zodiac sign. And this year, it’s the Year of the Snake (蛇年)! The Chinese Zodiac has 12 signs, or animals, each representing a year in the Chinese lunar calendar:

  • 鼠 (shǔ) mouse
  • 牛 (niú) ox; cow; bull
  • 龙 (lóng) dragon
  • 虎 (hǔ) tiger
  • 兔 (tù ) rabbit
  • 蛇 (shé) snake, serpent
  • 马 (mǎ) horse
  • 羊 (yáng)sheep; goat
  • 猴 (hóu ) monkey
  • 鸡 (jī) chicken
  • 狗 (gǒu)dog
  • 猪 (zhū) pig

Together, these animals are called 生肖(Shēngxiào), and it is well known that the mouse (or rat) is first in the order of the zodiac, with the pig being last. Just why exactly the mouse comes first is a little more of a debated topic, however, many Chinese conclude that the order of the zodiac comes from certain legends or stories.

Of particular note is the legend about the Jade Emporer (玉皇大帝Yùhuángdàdì) and the race amongst the zodiac animals. According to this story, the Jade Emporer had twelve spots open for animals to be his “palace guard”, and the exact position of the guards would be determined by a great race. On the night before the race, the cat asked the mouse (who was his friend at the time) to wake him up the morning of the race so that they could start out together. Come race day, however, the mouse left his friend snoozing steadily as he went off to compete (I guess he must have been thinking one less competitor meant a better chance for him!). Now the mouse, having tiny little legs, decided to partner up with the cow in order to secure a better position. He said to the cow, “Let me ride on your back and I will sing a song for you that will surely help you win this race!” Naturally, the well-mannered cow agreed and sped off in front of the entire crowd. Just before the finish line, however, the clever mouse quickly jumped from the cow’s head to win first place and become the first year of the zodiac. Meanwhile, the poor cat, which had woken up very late indeed, came in 13th and last place, thus bumping him out of the running as one of the palace guards. That is why, to this day, the cat and mouse are forever enemies.

To learn more about the various zodiac signs and their associated personality traits, check out this week’s Beijing Standard Time.

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S Chen

About S Chen

Director of My Learning Club Pty Ltd. Owner of Learn Chinese Cairns
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