Nobody knows which country started the animal zodiac, though the Chinese can certainly lay claim to being one of the first.
The 12 symbols of the Chinese zodiac, which of course is the one used here in Vietnam, probably have their origins in the Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206 BC until 220 AD.
Legend says that the ruler of the Chinese heavens, the Jade Emperor, asked the animals (including the dragon) to participate in a race in honour of his birthday. This fell on the ninth day of the first lunar month. The first 12 animals to arrive would represent a place in the calendar in the order in which they finished, but the tale is full of subplots.
Characteristics of the Zodiac Animals
Each of the 12 animals is linked to one of the five elements, is compatible with two other animals and has certain personality traits.
Compatible with: Dragon and Monkey
Traits: Intelligent, artistic, quick-witted, adaptable, charming and sociable
The rat is first on the list because during the race, it got a ride on the ox’s back across a swollen river. However, the cunning rat stayed on the ox throughout the race, jumping off just before the winning post. Its place at the head of the calendar was thus assured.
Compatible with: Snake and Rooster
Traits: Strong, loyal, reliable, thorough, reasonable, steady and determined
The ox was asked by the farmer to take a message to the Emperor, but also to sow seeds en route, as the land was barren. It had to sow a handful of seeds every three steps. It misunderstood and sowed three handfuls every step. As a consequence, it was instructed only to eat grass and weeds forever. Being diligent, it has stuck to this.
Compatible with: Horse and Dog
Traits: Enthusiastic, confident, courageous, ambitious, charismatic and a good leader
Originally the Jade Emperor chose the lion as a Zodiac animal, but it proved to be too aggressive. He had heard of the tiger’s bravery and ordered it into heaven. Defeating the old guardians of heaven, the tiger became the new guardian. It was sent back to earth to restore order when the animals down there had become unruly. It succeeded, and the Jade Emperor replaced the lion with the tiger in the zodiac.
Compatible with: Sheep and Pig
Traits: Trustworthy, sociable, empathic, modest, diplomatic, sincere and a good caretaker
The rabbit and the ox were once friendly neighbours. One day the rabbit bragged about his prowess as a long-distance runner. “I have a slim body”, he declared, “but you are stout, you cannot run fast.” The ox practised and improved. They declared that they would run to heaven when they heard the cock crow. The rabbit raced ahead, but soon got tired and fell asleep. The ox, however, never rested and forged ahead. The tiger ran by the rabbit and for safety the rabbit stayed behind him, eventually finishing fourth.
Compatible with: Rat and Monkey
Traits: Artistic, imaginative, lucky, flexible, eccentric, spiritual and charismatic
Originally hornless, the dragon wanted to be king of the zodiac animals. Not wanting to be regarded as lower than the tiger, it asked its brother, the chilopod (centipede), for advice. The chilopod suggested borrowing the rooster’s beautiful horns. The dragon did, and guaranteed the rooster that they would be returned. With its new horns the dragon was immensely powerful and impressed the Jade Emperor, becoming a zodiac sign.
Compatible with: Rooster and Ox
Traits: Intelligent, philosophical, organised, intuitive, elegant, attentive and decisive
In days gone by, the snake had four legs, while the frog was legless but worked hard catching insects for humans. The snake was lazy and disliked, making it angry and prone to biting people. Hearing this, the Jade Emperor ordered the Divine Soldier to cut off the snake’s legs and reward them to the frog. The snake was full of remorse, caught insects for humans, helped control the water and when it died, donated its body as a medicine to the people. Upon hearing this, the Jade Emperor awarded it zodiac status.
Compatible with: Dog and Tiger
Traits: Intelligent, adventurous, strong, adaptable, loyal, courageous, and ambitious
Originally winged, the horse could run, fly and swim. As a royal horse for the Jade Emperor it became arrogant and decided to attack the Dragon Palace in the East Sea. The holy turtle, supported by shrimp soldiers and crab generals, fought it off, but the horse kicked the turtle to death. The Emperor ordered its wings removed and for it to be buried for 300 years in Kulen Mountain. Rescued by a human, the horse worked for him out of gratitude. Recognising the horse’s remorse, the Jade Emperor awarded it zodiac status.
Compatible with: Boar and Rabbit
Traits: Crafty, warm, elegant, charming, intuitive, sensitive, calm and possessing good taste
Long ago, grain only grew in heaven – the Jade Emperor would not give it to humans. The sheep then smuggled holy grain from heaven in its mouth and gave it to those on earth. The Emperor was furious and ordered the sheep to be slaughtered and eaten. At the site where it was killed beautiful crops grew every year. Lambs were born and provided meat and milk. The humans insisted that the sheep be included in the zodiac, and so the Emperor obliged.
Compatible with: Dragon and Rat
Traits: Intelligent, lively, quick-witted, charming, lucky, adaptable, bright and versatile
The all-conquering tiger had power but was lonely. One day it fell into a hunter’s net. The monkey climbed down from the trees and set it free. The tiger was perplexed to be saved by such a lowly creature, but vowed to pay it back one day. When the Jade Emperor was choosing the animals, the monkey asked the tiger to speak on its behalf, and so the monkey was chosen.
Compatible with: Snake and Ox
Traits: Confident, honest, energetic, intelligent, flamboyant, flexible and diverse
The rooster always caused trouble for the humans so they didn’t recommend it to the Jade Emperor. Frustrated, the rooster asked the horse why. The horse said that the rooster had to learn to provide a service for the humans – perhaps the rooster’s voice could help. The rooster started waking people up at daybreak. As a reward the Jade Emperor plucked a red flower and placed it on the rooster’s head, and gave it a place in heaven.
Compatible with: Tiger and Horse
Traits: Sociable, lively, loyal, courageous, diligent, steady, adaptable and intelligent
The Jade Emperor asked the cat and the dog what they did for humans and how much they ate. The dog answered truthfully that he guarded the house and ate a bowl of food. The cat lied, saying that it chanted scriptures, caught rats and ate little. The Emperor believed the cat and rewarded it, causing the dog to chase the cat into hiding. Although angered, the dog went on to participate in the zodiac race, earning its place among the 12 animals.
Compatible with: Sheep and Rabbit
Traits: Sociable, honourable, determined, philanthropic, optimistic and sincere
A rich, childless farmer finally had a son when he was 60 years old. A fortune teller predicted that the child would be successful. However, the son was lazy and after the parents died, he did nothing and the farm went to ruin. Upon his death he asked why he had not been blessed, and the Jade Emperor said, “You had good fortune but were too lazy. I will change you into a pig which eats chaff as punishment.” The officer in Heaven mistook this as an order to make the pig a zodiac sign, and from then on the pig became one of the 12 animals.