Where did the twelve zodiac signs come from? Why is the rat first?

By Fei Gao on Dec 28, 2023

Where did the twelve zodiac signs come from? Why is the rat first? Why no cat?

The “evolutionary history” of the zodiac: related records have been recorded in the pre-Qin period

The twelve zodiac signs, also called “zodiac signs”, include rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog, and pig. They have a long history, and relevant records appeared in classics as early as the Pre-Qin period.

  In December 1975, two batches of Qin Dynasty bamboo slips were unearthed in Yunmengsuihudi, Hubei Province: among them, the content about “thieves” in “Rishu” is relatively close to the twelve zodiac animals, such as “child, rat, and thief sharp”. Mouth, sparse beard; ugly, like a cow, the thief has a big nose and long neck…"

  By the Han Dynasty, the twelve zodiac signs were basically finalized. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, Wang Chong wrote a book “Lunheng”, which mentioned: “Yin means wood, and its birds and tigers…Hai means water, and its birds and hogs…” It states the twelve zodiac signs and their corresponding ones. Twelve earthly branches attributes.

  As time goes by, the explanations about the twelve zodiac signs have been continuously improved, gradually accepted by people and passed down to this day.

  For example, in the Southern Dynasties, Shen Jiong wrote a poem called “Twelve Genres”, in which he wrote: “Rat traces create dust cases, cattle and sheep come down at dusk. Tigers roar in the empty valley, and the rabbit moon opens to the window. The dragon is far away in the green, Snakes and willows are lingering nearby. Malans are picked far away, and sheep are carrying spring planting. Monkeys and chestnuts are ashamed of their fragrant fruits, and chickens’ soles lead to clear cups. Dogs have nothing in their arms, and pigs are stupid officials.”

  Where did the twelve zodiac signs come from?

  People can always talk about a few stories about the zodiac signs, but their origins are still unclear.

here is a saying that the zodiac culture originated from the totem culture and has different symbolic meanings: since ancient times, different tribes have their own worshiped animals. For example, the cow is a symbol of farming society. According to legend, Emperor Yan of Shennong’s family was “an ox-headed person”, so Emperor Yan’s The descendants took the cow as their totem.

  Others say that the zodiac originated from animal worship. In primitive societies, human productivity was very poor. Livestock such as pigs, cattle, and sheep were closely related to agricultural activities. Animals such as tigers and snakes may threaten people’s own safety, and people would also feel fear… All of the above reasons eventually led to Zodiac formation.

  In addition, some scholars have put forward a view: the twelve zodiac signs are not only related to real animals, but also have an “astronomical” background and are related to the ancient people’s association with the stars. Wu Horse, Chen Long, and Yin Tiger are related to the images of these constellations.

  Of course, there are also sayings such as “the twelve zodiac signs are foreign”, but they are not widely recognized.

  Why is the rat the first animal in the Chinese zodiac?

  The twelve zodiac signs are a system of symbols for chronology, and the seemingly inconspicuous and somewhat annoying rat ranks first among them. What is the reason for this?

Ancient Chinese scholars once explained it from the perspective of the twelve hours of the day and night. When the heaven and earth were in chaos, rats came out around midnight and bit out a gap in the sky and earth. This was called “the rat bit the sky and the sky opened”, so the child was born in the year of the rat. After the creation of the world, people had to farm for a living, and cattle were the animals at that time. The main force in plowing the fields, so ugliness corresponds to cows and so on.

  Chinese folk believe that rats have strong reproductive power. The ancients expected the reproduction of life and the prosperity of the descendants of a large family, so the fertility concept of worshiping rats came into being. Many children will bring happiness. In the “Album of the Twelve Zodiac Signs” by Ren Yu, a painter of the late Qing Dynasty, in the “Picture of Rats and Rats” five rats are grabbing melon seeds from a jar. “Zi” sounds the same as “子”, which also means “many children”.

  There was another interesting question before: Why is there no cat among the twelve zodiac signs? In fact, the answer is very simple. Cats are native to Egypt and were introduced to China after the twelve zodiac signs were finalized , so there is no way to include them.

  The zodiac rat in legends and stories

  However, rats are not always cunning and cunning in ancient legends, stories or books.

There is also a novel in the late Qing Dynasty called “The Complete Biography of the Eight Immortals”, which also mentions a legend related to rats: During a major flood, the bridge was washed away, and a rat built a bridge with branches to save people, and finally died. Try your best to be swallowed by the water. The immortal was moved, gave the mouse a fairy fruit, and accepted him as his disciple, and finally helped the mouse become an immortal.

  In addition, there is a book called “Mengyuan Cong Shuo” in the Qing Dynasty, which records that there is a toy in eastern Guangdong called “money rat”, which makes a sound like counting money. Rats can make sounds like counting money. In the old days, this sound was regarded as an auspicious omen in some places. Rat images are also found in New Year pictures, paper-cuts, and lanterns that imply auspiciousness.

  In fact, to a certain extent, the twelve zodiac signs are visual representatives of the twelve earthly branches, each with its own rich legends, and later gradually integrated with some folk beliefs and concepts. In modern society, they are also regarded as the mascots of the Spring Festival.

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