Who Invented the Chinese Zodiac?

Ann Roberts
Chinese rat
See the twelve Chinese zodiac signs...

The question of who invented the Chinese zodiac is immersed in both history and legend.

Who Invented the Chinese Zodiac?

Although no known exact author has been identified by historians, the twelve animal zodiac emerged at the time of the Han dynasty, which makes the Chinese zodiac over 2,000 years old. There are several variations of a legend attached to the Chinese zodiac's twelve animals. In fact, there is likely an innumerable amount of legends surrounding the reason behind which animals were chosen to represent the zodiac and the order in which they appear. Since Chinese culture relies heavily on legends and myths for the explanation of events, it is no surprise that such rich story telling accompanies Chinese astrological methods.

When it comes to who invented the Chinese zodiac, one of the more popular legends regarding the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac involves the great Buddha. Buddha, after deciding to throw a large Chinese New Year party, sought to invite all the animals in the kingdom to partake of his feats. Unfortunately for Buddha and his generous invitation, only twelve animals chose to come. Legend has it that order of the animals' arrival dictated the order in which they appear in the Chinese zodiac.

The Order of Animals

The Chinese zodiac positions its twelve animals in the following order:

  • Rat
  • Ox
  • Tiger
  • Rabbit
  • Dragon
  • Snake
  • Horse
  • Sheep
  • Monkey
  • Rooster
  • Dog
  • Pig

This order possesses even greater significance if you delve into the variations of the Chinese zodiac legend. One variation states that it was not a New Year's party that Buddha was throwing, but merely a race involving these twelve animals. Buddha had decreed that the order in which the animals finished the race would determine their placement in the zodiac. Now, theoretically, a rat would never outshine a tiger or a horse in a race let alone a dragon. However, this variation of the zodiac legend helps explain not only the order of the zodiac, but also the nature and characteristics of the animals involved.

Rat is the first in the order of the Chinese zodiac because, as legend would have it, Rat used his cunning to win the race. In this legend it is no longer Buddha, but the Jade Emperor hosting a race. Apparently, when the Emperor sent out the invitation for the race, all the animals in the kingdom heard the call. Rat and Cat were the closest of friends and responded to the invite with equal zeal.

When the race began, Rat and Cat hurtled off together, side by side. Although they were first in the race for a long period of time, the race also led them to the bank of a river. The river's current was too powerful for Rat and Cat, so in order to make it safely across, Rat cleverly negotiated with Ox. Since Ox had compromised eyesight, Rat told Ox that in exchange for their safe passage, he and cat would help direct Ox throughout the remainder of the race. Ox merrily agreed, and so Rat and Cat hopped atop Ox's back and the trio made their way across the river.

Unfortunately, Rat was just a tad too wily for the rules of friendship, and so amidst their river journey, Rat's desire to win the race overcame his love for Cat. Rat shoved Cat off Ox's back and Cat fell into the river. Once safely across the river, Rat also ditched Ox and was the first to win the race, with Ox finishing second. This ignoble act also cost Rat his friendship with Cat, and so legend has it that this is the reason why cats and rats are sworn enemies.

History and Legend

Although the exact author of the Chinese zodiac is lost in history, the precise authors of the zodiac's legends are also unknown. Individuals asking about who invented the Chinese zodiac will be rewarded with a myriad of fanciful mythologies that have enriched Chinese culture for centuries.

Who Invented the Chinese Zodiac?