8 interesting Chinese zodiac myths and facts to know


The 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle makes for a fascinating tale indeed. Of fables and folklore, mythical animals and more – the Chinese zodiac, also known as Sheng Xiao, has influenced people’s lives for over two millennia. This fascinating system has trickled across the globe, with even Westerners following it more religiously than ever. Whether you’re an astrology buff or just intrigued by the nitty-gritty of how the Chinese zodiac came into being, we have you covered. Let’s take you through some interesting and fun facts about the Chinese zodiac you might not know.

Chinese zodiac sign: A basic overview

For those unversed, let’s start with the basics.

  • There are 12 Chinese zodiacs, each represented by an animal.  In order, they are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
  • It is a 12-year recurring cycle, wherein each year is represented by one of 12 animals. For example, 2024 is the Year of the Dragon, while 2025 will be the Year of the Snake and so on.
  • Unlike the Western zodiac where your sign depends on your birth month, your Chinese zodiac cycle will depend on the year you were born. For example, if you’re born in a Rat year (1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020…) your Chinese zodiac animal is the Rat. Therefore, it’s likely that you’ll embody all the personality traits of a Rat zodiac sign.
  • If you think that the Chinese zodiac cycle begins on January 1 like its Western counterpart, you’re wrong. The Chinese zodiac cycle begins on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar. The Lunar New Year usually falls between mid-January and late February.

With this, let’s dive into the interesting facts about the Chinese zodiac signs.

Interesting facts about the Chinese zodiac you ought to know

1. Jade Emperor’s legend: The great Chinese zodiac race

Ever wondered why Rat holds the first place in the Chinese zodiac cycle, Ox second and so on? Let’s acquaint you. It goes way back to the legend of the Jade Emperor, the Emperor of Heaven who ruled all celestial and mortal beings. According to Chinese mythology, he held a race for the 12 most worthy animals on his birthday. In this swimming race, the first twelve animals to cross the fast-flowing river were to have a year of the zodiac named after them.

Each animal, with its natural advantages and disadvantages, plotted and hijacked their way to the finish line. Initially, the kind Ox was leading the race, when the witty Rat requested it for a ride on the back. Ox kindly agreed. However, just as the Ox was about to cross the finish line, Rat jumped off its back and clinched the first spot. Hence the order came down to Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

2. Why was the Cat excluded from the Chinese zodiac? Here’s the backstory

cat zodiac
image credit: Freepik

Cat parents, have you ever wondered why your beloved pet was excluded from the Chinese zodiac? Well, all credit to the sly Rat. There are two fun backstories to this, so let’s dig right into them:

  • On the day of the aforementioned race organised by the Jade Emperor, all animals were assembled by the river. The Cat and the Rat were worried because they weren’t good at swimming. So they approached the Ox, who carried them across on its back. As they neared the finish line, the Rat pushed the Cat into the river. And as you know, it also betrayed the Ox to finish first.
  • The second story also originates from the Jade Emperor’s race. In this fable, Rat and Cat were the best of friends. The Cat usually slept late, and to avoid skipping the race’s registration, it requested Rat to wake him up and the latter agreed. However, on the D-Day, Rat conveniently forgot his promise. Therefore, Cat overslept and missed its chance to sign up.

3. The Chinese zodiac was used as a measure of time in ancient China

Chinese zodiac facts
image credit: onlyyouqj/ Freepik

Back in time when there were no clocks or watches, the Chinese zodiac was used as a way to count years, months, days, and even hours in the calendar. The Chinese bifurcated the day into 12 two-hour cycles and each zodiac animal was allocated a slot. Each animal represented two hours of the day.

The time slot they were allotted depended on each of their personalities. For example, the Rat, who actively looked for food during the night was allocated the 11 pm to 1 am slot. Meanwhile, the snake was given the 9 am to 11 am slot as that’s when it left its hole in search of food.

4. The Chinese zodiac is used by fortune tellers/ matchmakers to test compatibility

image credit: Freepik

Yes, you can harness the powers of the Chinese zodiac to find your ideal spouse. Many Chinese people believe that there are various degrees of predestined compatibility between zodiacs. For example, if you’re born in the Year of the Tiger, you will be least compatible with those born in the Year of Snake, Tiger or Monkey. This method is still widely used by matchmakers, families and fortune tellers in mainland China.

5. Your own zodiac year is unlucky for you

unlucky Chinese zodiac
image credit: Pixabay

While you might expect the year of your Chinese zodiac birth animal to be auspicious for you, it’s actually the opposite. Every person will encounter their birth years at the age of 12, 24, 36, 48… and so on in the 12-year repeating cycle.

It’s believed that people born in the year of their birth sign will have bad luck because they offend Tai Sui, the God of Age who’s responsible for everyone’s fortune. Therefore, many Chinese traditions have been put in place to ward off bad luck. These include wearing red, buying jade accessories, going to the temple burning incense etc.

For example, people born in the Year of the Dragon (1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024..) will witness bad luck in all of the Dragon Years. Instead, their luckiest years fall under other zodiac signs.

6. Each zodiac has five elements, each of which occurs only once every 60 years

air, water, fire, earth, metal elements
image credit: DeviantArt

Each zodiac sign is associated with five elements in Chinese astrology – Gold, Water, Wood, Earth, and Fire. For example, 2024 is the Year of the Wood Dragon. Since each zodiac animal repeats after 12 years, which means it’ll take 60 years to revisit a particular element. So now, the Year of the Wood Dragon will next occur in 2084.

7. Goat is the unluckiest zodiac animal

image credit: Freepik

A popular Chinese folktale is as follows: 9/10 Goats are insufficient (’10 Goats 9 incomplete’). This means that most of the people born in the Year of the Goat are doomed. It’s believed that the majority of Goat zodiac people will grow up to be followers rather than leaders, naive and too gullible. While this myth stems from centuries ago, it still has a significant impact on Chinese society. On the contrary, the Dragon is considered to be the luckiest, most coveted zodiac.

Read our story on the unluckiest Chinese zodiac signs

8. Dragon is the only mythical animal in the Chinese zodiac

image credit: Freepik

The only mythical animal to bag a spot in the Chinese zodiac, the Dragon is one of the most powerful and benevolent figures in Chinese culture. It is the epitome of success,  ambition, courage and confidence. Well, you might be wondering if Dragon is so powerful, why couldn’t it win the Jade Emperor’s race? Well, that’s again because of its nobility.

Legend says that the Dragon went to save a village from fire, and happily settled at the fifth place after helping Rabbit bag the fourth spot.

Which of these Chinese zodiac facts did you find most interesting? 

Hero image: Courtesy COPPERTIST WU/Pexels; Feature image: Courtesy sprout2911/Shutterstock

Also read: Chinese zodiac signs predictions for 2024 – Year of the Wood Dragon

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