The 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac
Representing the 12 Earthly
observation, ancient Chinese astronomers
calculated the orbit of Jupiter to be approximately 12 years and,
divided the celestial circle into 12 parts. This time system was
gradually applied to the Earth year with one Earthly Branch associated
with each month of the year. The Earthly Branches (地支) consist of
子 (zi), 丑 (chou), 寅 (yin), 卯 (mao), 辰 (chen), 巳 (si), 午 (wu), 未 (wei),
(shen), 酉 (you), 戌 (xu) and 亥 (hai).
Origin and History of the 12
Animals and the 12 Earthly
By the time of the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BCE), the
Earthly Branches had already become linked to the 12 animals (生肖) of
Chinese zodiac. These animals are the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit,
Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar (Pig).
The linking of a person's birth year with a particular zodiac animal
started during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220 AD) and became quite
in vogue during the Tang Dynasty (618 -907 AD).
The Chinese Zodiac and the Emperors of China
The popularity of the animals of the zodiac was not
limited to the
common people but also included the emperors.
Emperor Hui Zong of
the Song Dynasty was born in the year of the Dog. For this
reason, he issued an imperial edict prohibiting the killing of
Emperor Ren Zong of the Yuan
Dynasty was born in the year
of the Rooster and issued an imperial edict strictly prohibiting anyone
within the capital city from carrying a chicken upside down.
Those found violating this edict would be punished severely without
Some emperors went to even greater extremes. Emperor Wu Zong of
the Ming Dynasty was born in the year of the Boar. In the year
1519, he issued an imperial edict prohibiting the raising and slaughter
of pigs. Anyone who violated this edict would have himself and
his entire family
banished to a distant place for penal servitude. However, this
had an unintended consequence. The following year during the Qing
Ming Festival, the emperor and the common people were required to
sacrifice pigs to honor their ancestors but there were no pigs to be
sacrificed. As a result, the edict was rescinded.
From the above, it can be clearly seen that the 12 animals of the
Chinese zodiac were taken to be of extreme importance not only by the
common Chinese but by the emperors as well.
Examples of old Chinese zodiac charms displaying the 12 Animals and the
12 Earthly Branches are displayed below.
Old Chinese Zodiac Charms
This is the reverse side of an old Chinese zodiac charm showing a
picture of each
animal in its own circle with the 12 Zodiac Animals towards the outside
The Earthly Branch associated with each animal is
shown surrounding the inner circular hole.
The obverse side of this charm displays six persons but the meaning is
Some say that this is a scene of six children "playing".
Others interpret the scene as showing the Queen
Mother of the West (xiwangmu
西王母) with five children. The five children would probably be all
boys as traditionally the ideal family was considered to be five sons
and two daughters.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a reference to the Queen
Mother of the West with five children so I am still not certain of the
exact meaning of this charm.
This charm has a diameter of 56 mm.
This old charm has a square loop at the top. The charm could
be worn as a necklace or hanging from the waist. Charms of this
type were also hung from house rafters or other places. Other
"hanging" charms may be seen at pendant
This side of the charm depicts each of the Zodiac animals in a circle
entire group occupying most of the area of the reverse side.
Because the charm is quite worn from use over many years, it is
difficult to make out from the pictures which animal is which.
However, the Chinese
character of the Earthly Branch associated with each animal is shown to
the left of each animal.
side of this ancient Chinese charm displays a number of
Above the circular hole is the Big Dipper constellation. Below
the constellation is what is described as an auspicious cloud (yunqi
Below the circular hole is xuanwu
(see Four Divine
Creatures) which is
a tortoise entwined by a snake that eventually evolved into the Daoist
warrior god Zhenwu (真
武). To the left of xuanwu is a crane which represents
One interpretation of the theme of this charm is that it depicts the
two sage kings Yao
Another interpretation is that these are two "immortals".
However, I believe the scene is actually Lao
子), the founding philosopher of Taoism,
meeting with Zhang Daoling (张道陵), the founder of
the first Taoist religious sect which was known as the "Five
("Five Pecks of Rice" or Wudou Mi
Dao 五斗米道). For a more detailed discussion of
this particular charm, please
visit Daoist (Taoist)
This charm is 64 mm from top to bottom and 56 mm in width.
This ancient charm shows
considerable wear and probably dates to the Song or Yuan period.
It has an unusually large circular hole and symbols which are difficult
to identify with confidence.
At the ten o'clock position is the Chinese character chi (敕) with
the character ling (令)
written just below it.
Chiling (敕令) translates as
"imperial order" or "edict".
To the right of the hole is a deity standing with a sword in hand who is prepared to
provide protection and enforce the "edict". (See "Swords
and Amulets" for a discussion of sword symbolism.)
Below the hole is an animal that appears to be cat or tiger. Both animals are
symbols of protection.
The tiger is one of the Chinese zodiac animals and the Chinese word for
tiger (hu 虎)
has the same pronunciation as the word "to protect" (hu 护).
The symbol at the eleven o'clock position is unclear but may be a pair of coins. Also, I am
uncertain as to the symbol at the nine o'clock position but it may be
an auspicious cloud.
The reverse side of the charm displays the 12 animals of the zodiac
along the outside rim.
The corresponding Earthly Branches surround the inside rim.
This charm has a diameter of 33.7 mm and a weight of 8 grams.
This old Chinese zodiac charm is also well worn from use.
There is a canopy on top of the round body with three holes at the top.
Also at the top is the character gua
(挂) which means to hang. As is the case with the charm shown
above, this charm was meant to be either worn has a necklace or hanging
from the waist, or hung from a rafter or other structure.
the 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac surrounding the outside rim.
The Earthly Branch associated with each animal is shown encircling the
The obverse side displays the bagua.
a discussion of the bagua
please see The Book of Changes and
This charm measures 67 mm in length and 49 mm in width at its "ears".
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