Chinese New Year is widely associated with the ancient Chinese zodiac Shēngxiào. With similarities to some aspects of Western astrology, Shēngxiào, or “birth likeness”, attributes and relates an animal sign to each year in a cycle of 12 years.
According to some historians, the animals connected to the Chinese zodiac were brought from China via the Silk Road route, the trade route that connected the West to the East. However, others believe that the zodiac predates Buddhism and has its origins in the early Chinese astrology that used the planet Jupiter as a constant due to its 12 year orbital period around the earth.
While its exact origins are inconclusive, there are many different legends and folk stories relating to the Chinese zodiac, varying from region to region much like the country’s diverse cuisine. The most popular of these stories, which differs depending on who is telling the story, is known as “The Great Race”.
It said in one version that the Buddha, or in some stories the Jade Emperor, sent an invitation to all of the animals in the kingdom to attend a Great Race which would decide the twelve animals that would be included in the zodiac.
Cat and Rat were good friends so they decided to travel to meet the Buddha together. As they were both bad swimmers, and the race included crossing a mighty river, they devised a clever plan to ride to victory on the back of the strongest of the animals, Ox, across the rapid and dangerous currents.
Just as they were in sight of the shore, Rat pushed Cat into the river, before jumping to shore ahead of Ox and winning the race. This explains why the cat hates water and is the sworn enemy of the rat.
The third animal to cross the river was Tiger. Though ferociously powerful, Tiger was defied first or second place by the powerful river’s currents.
Rabbit took fourth place, who had been blown to shore on a log he had climbed on after he had run out of river stones to hop across. This animal is recognised as extremely lucky.
It was Dragon who had blown the giant puff of air which essentially blew Rabbit’s log to shore. As one of the only flying animals, Dragon told the Buddha that he could have come first except that he had to stop to make rain for the people and creatures of the earth. He had then taken pity on the tiny rabbit, and had blown him to safety.
Horse arrived next, although hidden on his hoof was Snake, whose sudden appearance gave Horse a fright, thus making him fall back giving Snake the sixth spot in the zodiac while Horse came seventh.
Not long after, Sheep, Monkey and Rooster came to shore. The three animals helped each other to cross the mighty river on a raft discovered by Rooster. Together, Sheep and Monkey cleared the reeds and got the raft to shore. Because of their joint efforts, Sheep, Monkey and Rooster became the eighth, ninth and tenth animals of the zodiac respectively.
While Dog was the strongest swimmer, he couldn’t resist the temptation to play in the river, although he excused himself to the Buddha saying that he needed a bath. Because of this, he took eleventh place.
Just as the Buddha was about to call it a day and close the Great Race, a squealing was heard from the shore. Pig had gotten hungry and stopped for a snack and a short nap. Even though he was late, he had arrived before the end of the race, so he took the final twelfth place.
The first day of the Chinese calendar in 2016 is Monday 8th February, welcoming the Year of the Monkey.
Those who are born in the Year of the Monkey are naturally curious, mischievous and clever. Forever playful, monkeys are the masters of pranks and practical jokes. Their intentions are always good, although they can hurt feelings due to their spirited tendencies.
This year also heralds a fire year. The Taoist theory of the Five Elements describes the interaction and relation between yin and yang using symbols representing dynamic processes. Fire symbolises embodiment, definition, action, movement and design.
The Fire Monkey is the most active and aggressive of the monkeys. A person born in this year will be naturally dominant, gravitating towards leadership roles and excelling in competitive sport. Flamboyant and charming, the Fire Monkey will have a large social circle and won’t be afraid to take risks.
The Year of the Monkey, especially the Fire Monkey, is a year that anything can happen. Its playful influence means that there’s no use making plans. It’s a year of accomplishment, with a lightning fast pace and motivation. The monkey increases communication, humour and wit, meaning that adversity will be overcome with grace and ease. It also means that those who dare to be different can be extremely successful.