Another popular legend has it that a race was used to decide the animals to
report to the Jade Emperor:
All the animals lined up on the bank of a river and were given the task of
getting to the opposite shore. Their order in the calendar would be set by the
order in which the animals managed to reach the other side. The cat wondered how
he would get across if he was afraid of water. At the same time, the ox wondered
how he would cross with his poor eyesight. The calculating rat suggested that he
and the cat jump onto the ox's back and guide him across. The ox was steady and
hard-working so that he did not notice a commotion on his back. In the
meanwhile, the rat snuck up behind the unsuspecting cat and shoved him into the
water. Just as the ox came ashore, the rat jumped off and finished the race
first. The lazy pig came to the far shore in twelfth place. And so the rat got
the first year named after him, the ox got the second year, and the pig ended up
as the last year in the cycle. The cat finished too late (thirteenth) to win any
place in the calendar, and vowed to be the enemy of the rat forevermore.
Some versions of the tale say that the cattle nominated a water buffalo to
represent them because he was more proficient at water. The trade was acceptable
because both animals are members of the family of bovid.
Another expands the race; the route ran through a forest, over ranges of plains
and grasslands, and along a stream, before finally crossing a lake to the
Yet another variation tells of two different races. The first involved all the
animals, in two divisions to avoid the fast animals dominating the top, and the
top six in each division would "make the cut" for a second round, which would
then determine the order of placement of the animals in the zodiac. This format
is rather like the one that the National Football League uses to determine its
playoff teams (six from each conference).
There is also a cycle of the
Five Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal (Gold),
Water) on top of the cycle of animals. A person's year sign can be a gold
dragon, a wood rooster etc. In ancient match-making practice in China, couples
were brought together according to their compatible signs. For example, it is
believed that dog and dog don't get along, but dog and pig do; a water dog
supports a wood pig but dominates a fire pig in their relationship because water
benefits wood, but controls fire according to the Chinese five elements'
The elements are also associated with colors, the traditional correspondence
being green to Wood, red to Fire, brown to Earth, white to Metal, and black to
Water. Some websites denote the years by the color and zodiac sign (as opposed
to animal sign and element).
The elements are combined with the binary Yin Yang cycle, which enlarges the
element cycle to a cycle of ten. Even years are yang, odd years are yin. Since
the zodiac animal cycle of 12 is divisible by two, every zodiac can only occur
in either yin or yang: the dragon is always yang, the snake is always yin, etc.
This combination creates a 60-year cycle, starting with Wood Rat and ending with
Water Pig. The current cycle began in the year 1984.
Since the (traditional) Chinese zodiac follows the Chinese calendar, the switch
over date for the zodiac signs is the Chinese New Year, not January 1 as in the
Gregorian calendar. Therefore, a person that was born in January or early
February may have the sign of the previous year. For example, 1990 was the year
of the horse, but anyone born from January 1 to January 25, 1990 was born in the
year of the snake (the sign of the previous year), because the 1990 year of the
horse began on January 26, 1990.