The Chinese zodiac consists of twelve animals that first appeared in the Zhan Guo period [5th century B.C.]. No one knows the exact date as of when the zodiac was essentially created, but they were officially identified during the Han Dynasty [206 B.C.–9 A.D.], which was over 2000 years ago. The zodiac became a popular way to determine a person’s birth year during the North Zhou Dynasty [557-581 A.D.] and is still very commonly used today.

Myths say that Emperor Huangdi, the first Chinese emperor, in 2637 B.C. invented the Chinese lunar calendar, which follows the cycles of the moon The zodiac was based on Chinese astrology and was used as a way to count years, months, days, and hours in the calendar. It was formed from two components: the Celestial Stem and the Terrestrial Branch. Each of the 12 animals stands for a year in a 12-year cycle, a day in the a 12-day cycle, and for every two hours in a 24-hour day.

Following is the traditional story behind it:

Long long ago, in China, the Jade Emperor wanted to find a easy way to count years, so someone suggested that they can select 12 animals to represent the 12-year-cycle in lunar calendar, each for a year.

The Jade Emperor announced to the entire animal kingdom that there would be an amazing race. The first twelve animals to cross the finish line would each be awarded one year in the lunar calendar.

At that time, the Cat and the Rat were the best of friends. They accompanied each other no matter where they went. Hearing this news, the two friends got very excited, for both of them want a coveted position on the calendar. But soon their excitement faded, and they began to worry about their poor swimming skill. After thinking for a while, they decided to ask the Ox for some help. The Rat and Cat explained to the Ox their problem and asked him if he would be so kind as to let them ride on his back. The Ox, having a kind nature, agreed without the slightest hesitation and promised to let them sit on his back in the race.

Happy with the Ox’s promise, the Cat decide to take a nap so that he could be at his best point. He asked his friend: “Could you please wake me up when it’s time for the race?”

“Sure. Just have a good nap. I will wake you up when the time comes.” the Rat replied. But the position on the calendar was like a carrot dangling in front of the Rat to entice him into betraying his best friend. So when the time came, he went alone and left the Cat sleeping deeply.

In the race, the Ox, as the best swimmer, soon took the lead. Just before the Ox was about to reach the other bank, the Rat leaped on his head and on to the bank to finish first.

The Jade Emperor was very pleased and told the Rat that the first year of the Zodiac would be named after him. Of course, the naive Ox had been tricked into second place and the second year of the zodiac was named after him.

Following closely behind was strong Ox who was named the 2nd animal in the zodiac. After Ox, came Tiger, panting, while explaining to the Jade Emperor how difficult it was to cross the river with the heavy currents pushing it downstream all the time. But with its powerful strength, Tiger made to shore and was named the 3rd animal in the cycle.

Suddenly, from a distance came a thumping sound, and the Rabbit arrived. It explained how it crossed the river: by jumping from one stone to another in a nimble fashion. Halfway through, it almost lost the race, but the Rabbit was lucky enough to grab hold of a floating log that later washed him to shore. For that, it became the 4th animal in the Zodiac cycle. Coming in 5th place was the Flying Dragon. Of course, the Jade Emperor was deeply curious as to why a swift flying creature such as the Dragon should fail to reach first place. The mighty Dragon explained that he had to stop and make rain to help all the people and creatures of the earth, and therefore he was held back. Then, on his way to the finish, he saw a little helpless Rabbit clinging onto a log so he did a good deed and gave a puff of breath to the poor creature so that it could land on the shore. The Jade Emperor was very pleased with the actions of the Dragon, and he was added into the zodiac cycle. As soon as he had done so, a galloping sound was heard, and the Horse appeared. Hidden on the Horse’s hoof was the Snake, whose sudden appearance gave the Horse a fright, thus making it fall back and giving the Snake the 6th spot, while the Horse placed 7th.

Not long after that, a little distance away, the Sheep, Monkey, and Rooster came to the shore. These three creatures helped each other to get to where they are. The Rooster spotted a raft, and took the other two animals with it. Together, the Sheep and the Monkey cleared the weeds, tugged and pulled and finally got the raft to the shore. Because of their combined efforts, the Emperor was very pleased and promptly named the Sheep as the 8th creature, the Monkey as the 9th, and the Rooster the 10th.

The 11th animal was the Dog. Although he was supposed to be the best swimmer, he could not resist the temptation to play a little longer in the river. Though his explanation for being late was because he needed a good bath after a long spell. For that, he almost didn’t make it to finish line. Just as the Jade Emperor was about to call it a day, an oink and squeal was heard from a little Pig. The Pig got hungry during the race, promptly stopped for a feast and then fell asleep. After the nap, the Pig continued the race and was named the 12th animal of the zodiac cycle. 

As to the poor Cat, he did not wake up until the magpie chattered the result of the race over his head. When the Cat found out what the Rat had done, he was furious. The two became worst enemies. This is the reason why cats are not one of the twelve animals and they love to chase after rats.