The origins of the Chinese zodiac, much like their Western counterparts, remain largely a mystery to the layperson. In ancient China, a system of "heavenly stems" (天干) and "earthly branches" (地支) were used to record the passing of time. Instead of a perpetually increasing number as modern calendars use, ancient Chinese used characters to represent the heavenly stems and earthly branches, each related to one of the five natural elements—earth, wood, fire, metal, water. Stems are paired with branches according to particular rules, with a total possible 60 combinations, and 60 years to complete the zodiac. The 10 heavenly stems are Jia (甲), Yi (乙), Bing (丙), Ding (丁), Wu (戊), Ji (己), Geng (庚), Xin (辛), Ren (壬), and Kui (癸). These characters are still in use today, in certain contexts such as legal documents where they offset sections, much like Roman numerals in the West.
How were these specific 12 animals chosen and their order set? One popular interpretation is that the order corresponds with the time of day when these animals are active. And, according to a folktale, rats should not be on the list. Cats and rats used to be friends. When the Heavenly Emperor called a conference to decide which animals would earn a place on the zodiac, every animal vied for the honor. Finally, the Heavenly Emperor declared that the first 12 animals to arrive would receive a place. The rat promised to wake up its good friend the cat, but in the end forgot. That's why cats today are always running after rats: They still cannot forget the shame and forgive their old friend.
There seems to be no clear explanation as to why the animals were paired, but some speculate that the pairs arise from philosophies set forth in the I Ching and represent a yin-yang balance: The first pair, for example, consists of rat—the witty animal—and ox—the diligent one. If one is witty without diligence, one becomes cunning. But, on the other hand, diligence without wit means one is dull.
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This article by Tan Juan was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 10 ("in the year 4706")..