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How old are the animal names of the Chinese signs?

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Joined: 11 Oct 2003
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Location: England

Posted: Mon Feb 27, 2012 12:01 pm    Post subject: How old are the animal names of the Chinese signs? Reply with quote

I'm interested in this since having a conversation with Vic Ketis at the recent FAA conference. Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend his lecture on Chinese astrological methods because it was the same time as one of mine. I got the impression from Vic that the familiar names of the Chinese signs (Rat, Pig, Dragon, etc) are not as old and well-attested historically as most of us assume they are.

Does anyone have any information about when the Chinese zodiac divisions became commonly associated with the animals used today?
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Joined: 27 Feb 2012
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Posted: Mon Feb 27, 2012 2:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The use of animal signs were found in ancient Chinese text in AD 1, as a way to represent the yin/yang five elements so people in general could remember easily.
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Posted: Mon Feb 27, 2012 2:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hmmm - that had always been my understanding. Hope I haven't misrespresented Vic's views. I'll send him an email and clarify this. I do remember some controversial point being made that there are assumptions about these names, which were not used historically in the way we tend to think they are today.

Thanks for responding jup
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Posted: Mon Feb 27, 2012 2:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Indeed, the zodiac division is represented by other Chinese characters which relate to the yin/yang of the five elements. Such division/ astronomy can be traced back to I Ching.
The animal signs were used probably for the convenience of common people. And the 12 animal yearly signs indeed is about the Jupiter cycle.
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Posted: Mon Feb 27, 2012 3:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Ah yes, (my memory is coming back a little ...) that was the sort of thing he was saying Smile Thanks for clarifying the point of confusion.
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Joined: 04 Sep 2007
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Posted: Mon Feb 27, 2012 10:57 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

As far as I know the Chinese animals were attributed to forces that had been found centuries before - i.e. the earthly stems (as opposed to the heavenly stems). It seems these animals had been referred to the 12-years' cycle also outside China, e.g. among Turkish populations.
Even today Chinese astrologers in China often do not mention the animals -which does not mean that they avoid them:
2012 - commonly named "Yang- Water / Dragon": Chinese astrologers would as a rule in this case often just say: 9 / V - an abstract way of expressing it.

I have been trying to grasp the fundamentals of Chinese astrology for some time - but it takes patience... but it's worthwhile doing so. There is so much to be learned about individuals.

What I suggest: One might take an example of a Four Pillars Chart (Bazi Suanming) - and discuss it in detail. The relations between the pillars may at first sight be simple - however, they turn out to be most intricate once you have tried to gain more than just a superficial insight.

Free Four Pillars charts:
Mark: Free chart Four pillars 1.1.
Non coerceri maximo, contineri minimo divinum est.
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Joined: 08 Nov 2004
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Location: Macau (Macao SAR, China)

Posted: Thu Nov 20, 2014 6:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think both jul and Lunlumo are right. As far as I know, from my conversations with Chinese "fortune tellers" (mainly those using the BaZi system) here in China, where I live, the 12 "animals" are not part of any scientific (from a traditional point of view) system in China.
They just ignore the so called signs, which they view as something created to help the people memorize the names of the Chinese years. Instead of using the zi, chou, yin, mao, chen, etc 12 earthly branches - as Lunlumo pointed out - they call it the year of the Mouse, the year of the Ox, the year of the Tiger, etc.
But when it comes to the scientific traditional analysis of life (in other words, the analysis of the transformations that occur in the sublunary world), they ignore the 12 signs, only the 12 earthly branches (and the 10 heavenly stems) count. The branches and the stems express the strength of the 5 Chinese "elements" (wrong translation from the Chinese - a better translation would be something like a "phase" or "transformation") dominant in each moment or "unity of time".
All Chinese masters I met so far here see the 12 "signs" as something funny, entertaining, just that, nothing serious.
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Michael Sternbach

Joined: 01 Mar 2014
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Location: Switzerland

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2015 12:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Deb,

Are you still pursuing this topic?

There is an amazing theory regarding the origin of the Chinese Zodiac, presented over 100 years ago by the German historian Franz Boll in his classical work Sphaera.


(Yeah, I know, it's in German.)

In my opinion, Boll's theory deserves much more attention than it seems to have received so far.

But actually, "Chinese Zodiac" is somewhat of a misnomer in this context, since, over the centuries, it has spread to countries as diverse as Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Tibet, Turkestan, Eastern Turkey, and Persia.

Now, Boll calls to attention the ancient Dodekaoros, which was likewise a circle of twelve animals. The earliest description we have of it is by Teucer the Babylonian, dating back to approximately the 1st century AD. It reappears throughout history in various sources.

These twelve animals of the Babylonians (and later, Egyptians) were sections either of the celestial equator or the ecliptic. It is unclear whether they were named after actual star constellations in their vicinity, but in any case, they were considered to be co-rising with the signs of the Zodiac. Sometimes they even took the place of the latter. They were also employed to designate the twelve double hours of the day commonly used in the ancient world. Just like the twelve animals in China historically!

By the same token, in  Chinese Astrology, the twelve branches (equivalents to the twelve animals) are indeed thought of as divisions of the ecliptic.

Now, Boll derived the following correspondences between our Zodiac, the Dodekaoros, and the Chinese Zodiac, including some alternative names depending on the country:

Aries                 Cat                   Dog
Taurus              Dog                  Rooster (Bird)
Gemini              Snake              Monkey
Cancer              Beetle              Sheep (Goat)
Leo                    Donkey            Horse
Virgo                  Lion                 Snake
Libra                  Buck                 Dragon (Crocodile)
Scorpio              Bull                   Rabbit
Sagittarius         Hawk               Tiger (Panther)
Capricorn           Monkey            Ox
Aquarius             Ibis                   Mouse
Pisces                 Crocodile         Pig

What is remarkable is the number of animals that (despite their different order) are either the same or very similar in the Dodekaoros and in the Eastern Zodiac:

Monkey                         Monkey
Crocodile                       Dragon (Crocodile in Persia)
Dog                                 Dog
Snake                             Snake
Buck                               Sheep (Goat in Thailand)
Bull                                  Ox
Lion                                  Tiger (Panther in Mongolia)
Donkey                             Horse
Ibis                                    Rooster (Bird in Persia)

That's nine out of twelve - coincidence? Franz Boll didn't think so. And neither does

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Joined: 02 Feb 2014
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Location: Tasmania!

Posted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 3:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

From what I've read about chinese astrology over the years, they refer the 'mouse' as a 'rat'. 1st time I've seen it mentioned as a mouse... but I suppose to the "untrained" eye and from a distance a mouse can be seen as a rat....

I've also seen (can't recall the book now) that the western astrology zodiac signs do have eastern (chinese) astrology parallels in so much as like this..

Aries = Dragon
Taurus = Snake
Gemini = Horse
Cancer = Goat
Leo = Monkey
Virgo = Rooster
Libra = Dog
Scorpio = Pig
Sagittarius = Rat
Capricorn = Ox
Aquarius = Tiger
Pisces = Rabbit

Unfortunately, I have lost my chinese astrology books from too many domestic moves over the years of this earthly existence... Sad but for some reason, I have never forgotten this comparison.
Libra Sun/ Pisces Moon/ Sagittarius Rising
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Joined: 04 Feb 2013
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Posted: Tue Oct 06, 2015 7:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Chinese first associated animals (real and mythical) to the 28 constellations. Then, they used only 12 of them to represent the 12 signs.

Believe or not, most explanations were reverse-engineered because the origin of Chinese Zodiac was not well documented, such as the odd/even digits explanation. Some explanations are even fabricated with a very short history, especially the story on the Race.
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Posted: Fri Apr 22, 2016 2:39 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Chinese animal zodiac, or shengxiao, is a repeating cycle of 12 years, with each year being represented by an animal and its reputed attributes. Traditionally these zodiac animals were used to date the years.
The zodiac was in use by the Roman era, based on concepts inherited by Hellenistic astronomy from Babylonian astronomy of the Chaldean period (mid-1st millennium BC), which, in turn, derived from an earlier system of lists of stars along the ecliptic.[1] The construction of the zodiac is described in Ptolemy's vast 2nd century AD work, the Almagest
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Posted: Thu Dec 01, 2016 9:40 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

According to what I have read in the article about Origin of Chinese Zodiacs associated with animals. It was originated in the Han Dynasty in 202BC - 220AD and it was based upon each animal's character and living habits.

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Posted: Sun Apr 09, 2017 1:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hello Deb,

The Chinese calendar (year, months, day, hours) were all numbered by sexagenary cycle, since 1250 BC as per wikipedia. For example Apr 9 2017 2am would be
Ding (yin fire) Rooster -- the year,
Jia (yang wood) Dragon --the month,
Bing (yang fire wood) Tiger -- the day,
Ji (yin earth) Ox -- the hour

Ding; Jia; Bing; Ji are the heavenly stem, an obsolete way of numbering...

the Twelve Earthly Branches are name of the 12 animals in Chinese, they also have yin&yang for each element. For example monkey is yang metal, rooster is yin metal. The earth element is more complicated: Ox is wet &yin earth; Dragon is wet&yang; Goat is dry and yin; Dog is dry and yang.

So not only the years are numbered in animals, months, days, and hours are recorded in the same way.

The sexagenary cycle is attested as a method of recording days from the earliest written records in China, records of divination on oracle bones, beginning ca. 1250 BC. Almost every oracle bone inscription includes a date in this format.
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Posted: Tue Jul 11, 2017 11:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

There are two sources of that I found where the animals were used. The first one was excavated from a tomb in Hubei from the Qin Dynasty (227-207 BCE). The bamboo scrolls recorded how the animals relate to the physical feature of thieves:
Zi, mouse, the thief’s mouth looked sharp, and has thin facial hair,…Chou, a cow, the thief has big nose and long neck,…Yin, a tiger, the thief has thin beard and has black mole on the face, Mao, a rabbit, the thief will have a big head, Chen (no animal sign noted), the thief will have greenish and reddish complexion, Si (worm), the thief will have darker complexion, and the eyes resemble a snake, Wu (deer), the thief has long neck and small mouth, and does not have full set of body parts,….etc”
“子,鼠也,盗者锐口,稀须,……丑,牛也,盗者大鼻长颈,……寅,虎也,盗者状,希须 ,面有黑焉。卯,兔也,盗者大面头。辰,盗者男子,青赤色……巳,虫也 ,盗者长而黑蛇目。午,鹿也,盗者长颈小哘,其身不全。……未,马也,盗者长须耳。申,环也,盗者圆面……酉,水也……戌,老羊也……亥,豕也。”
A complete record is from Wang Cong’s Heng Lun in Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE). In chapter three:
“Yin, is the wood element, and the animal is a tiger; Xu, is the earth element, and the animal is a dog; Chou, Wei both are earth elements, Cou is a cow, and Wei is sheep. Wood act on Earth, so a tiger will dominate dog, cow, and sheep. Hai, is water, and is a pig; Si, is fire, and the animal is snake; Zi is water, and a mouse; Wu is fire and a horse…Wu is a horse, Zi is a mouse, You is chicken, Mao is a rabbit. Water acts on fire, so why don’t a mouse chase a horse? If Metal acts on Wood, why doesn’t a chicken pick on a rabbit? …..”
In the same book, in chapter twenty-three:
“Chen is a dragon, and Si is a snake. Chen, Shi’s position is South East. Dragon is poisonous, and the snake has sting, thus snake has sharp teeth, and the dragon has scales that grow in reverse. Wood will give rise to fire, and fire is poison, thus a dragon will hold a fireball (Mars?) in its mouth.
”寅木也,其禽虎也;戌土也,其禽犬也;丑未亦土也,丑禽牛,未禽羊也。木胜土,故犬与牛羊为虎所服也。亥水也,其禽豕也;巳火也,其禽蛇也;子亦水也,其禽鼠也;午亦火也,其禽马也……午马也,子鼠也,酉鸡也,卯兔也。水胜火,鼠何不逐马?金胜木,鸡何不啄兔? 亥豕也,未羊也,丑牛也。土胜水,牛羊何不杀豕?巳蛇也,申猴也。火胜金,蛇何不食猕猴?“
There are many theories about the origin to the animal zodiac. The lunar mansion being one, but interestingly, Decans are also of a source.
The Earthly Branch used in the Oracle bones proceed to this discovery was more or less used as a symbol, like an algebraic letter, but the correction to the branch to animals was not recorded.[2]-8831393-wrap
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