Who Invented the Chinese Zodiac?

Patricia Lantz C.Ht.
Chinese horoscope icons in earthtones

Most people know about Chinese astrology and the Chinese zodiac of twelve animals because of the paper placemats that are on the tables of almost every Chinese restaurant. What they may not know is that this is an ancient and complex system based on the number twelve. Twelve is the number that represents the cosmic order of space and time.

The History of the Twelve Animals

Some believe the animals of the Chinese zodiac were brought to China via the Silk Road, an Asian trade route that also brought Buddhist beliefs to China. However, scholars argue the Chinese zodiac predates Buddhism and has its origins in early Chinese astronomy. It is thought that the twelve-year cycle with an animal representing each year was based on the planet Jupiter because Jupiter is a constant that returns to the same spot in the sky every twelve years.

Timeline

According to The History of the Chinese Calendar, a very detailed essay produced by the National University of Singapore:

  • Chinese astronomy can be traced back to the time of the legendary emperor, Fu-his (2852 BC).
  • According to historical records from 90 BC, the first calendar is attributed to Huang-ti or the Yellow Emperor (2697 BC). It was also the Yellow Emperor who ordered the study of the stars by court astronomers. It was his minister Ta Nao who prepared the first calendar called Kan-chih or Chia-tzu system, which Western scholars have translated as "the system of cyclical characters."
  • The animals were officially identified during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).
  • It was during the North Zhou Dynasty (557-581 AD) that the Chinese zodiac became a popular way to determine a person's birth year.

Thought the creator of the Chinese zodiac is unknown, what is known is that the cycle of twelve animals was an easy way for illiterate, peasants, and those unable to comprehend the more technical duodenary cycle (twelve-year cycle) to chronicle the years.

The Chinese Zodiac

There many legends and myths surrounding the Chinese zodiac. One says it was Buddha who assigned the twelve animals in the cycle of the Chinese Zodiac. This legend says Buddha invited all the animals to join him for New Year's Day. When only twelve animals showed up, he rewarded them by naming a year for each one in the order of their arrival; rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, cock, dog, and boar.

In Chinese astrology, the year you were born relates to one of these twelve animals, and this is how others perceive you as being or how you present yourself, as well as your fortune in life. However, animals are not just assigned by year; they are also appointed a month, day, and hours.

A quarter of the world's population manages their lives using the Chinese zodiac. So, even if you don't believe there's anything to it, it would be wise to know how it works.

Lost in the Ancient Past

An accurate history that includes the names those who made significant contributions to an ancient culture is not readily available. Much information is lost over the passage of time. Many cultures have a rich oral history but lack written documents. Oral storytelling suffers over time from a loss of information and is often considered a myth. Although the name of the person who created the Chinese zodiac is lost in the ancient past and not identified by historians, it is known that twelve animal zodiac emerged at the time of the Han dynasty, which makes the Chinese zodiac well over 2,000 years old.

Who Invented the Chinese Zodiac?