Who Invented the Chinese Zodiac?
The Chinese Zodiac is not a “zodiac” at all since it is neither based on the constellations nor is it a division of the ecliptic. Rather it is a way to observe time in cycles. There are no written record so who invented the Chinese Zodiac. However there are many theories about its origin.
One story relates that the ancient Chinese used to keep time by the use of ten “heavenly stems” and twelve “earthly branches.” Different combinations of these stems and branches were used to tell the month, year, day and hour. The calculations were too complicated for average folk, so they used common animals to symbolize the time divisions.
The story tells us that the famous Yellow Emperor was the first to use the Chinese Zodiac. He introduced it in the year 2,600 B.C. to begin the Chinese Lunar Year. In ancient China, the emperors were well schooled in astrology. It was believed that one had to know the ways of the stars and the heavens to be a worthy ruler.
Legendary Origin of the Chinese Zodiac
A couple of legends exist telling why the Chinese Zodiac is ordered the way it is. According to one version, the Buddha summoned all the animals in the world to a meeting. Only the twelve animals – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig – heeded his call. The Buddha rewarded each animal by making it the ruler of one of the signs. He gave them each year according to their order of arrival.
A second version narrates how the beasts argued over who should come first in the yearly cycle. So the Jade Emperor told them to race across a river and whoever reached the other side first would win. The rat mounted the ox and won by sticking out its nose at the finish line. The snake too, was dishonest – it frightened the horse to get ahead of it. The dragon would have won easily since it had wings. But it paused to help the tiny rabbit cross the river. This legend suggests the dragon was held as the noblest of the Chinese Zodiac signs.
The Four Pillars
The cycle of twelve animals are paired with the cycle of the five elements. So the exact animal such as a “Metal Tiger” appears only once every sixty years. What’s more, contrary to popular belief, the Chinese calendar is not limited to a different animal for each year. There are also animals for one’s month, day and hour of birth. Together with the year, these are known as the Four Pillars or Four Columns. The animal-element for one’s year is associated with ancestors and childhood. The animal-element of one’s month tells about one’s parents and youth. That for the day concerns oneself and one’s adult life. The animal and element for one’s birth hour is about children and old age.