Asia’s animal zodiac: 1. Introduction

Posted: 2014 年 05 月 26 日 in Asia horoscopes
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Asia’s Animal Zodiac (The Asia Magazine; January 31, 1982)

Written by Robin Dannhorn; edited by Ben

The Asian zodiac, based on the lunar calendar and a cycle of twelve years, rather than the Western system of twelve monthly signs within each fixed calendar year, presents a rich combination of astrology, folklore, legend, and Oriental mysticism.

No one seems to know how, where or when the Asian zodiac system, using six wild and six domesticated animals, originated. Ancient Chinese ritual carvings of the Shang Period (商朝, 18-12th century B.C.) grouped some of the animals together but the custom of associating the years with specific animals certainly was well established in China by the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 7-10th century A.D.).

The Chinese always have been fascinated by the relationship between numbers and the secrets of the universe, from the fundamental yin and yang, representing the positive and negative forces in everything. They believe in the four seasons and four directions of the universe; the five elements and five cycles of twelve years which make up the sixty years considered as a man’s normal life span.

The Chinese calendar depends on the moon, rather than the Roman system based on the sun. Under the Chinese system, the sixty-year cycle is created by the interrelationship of the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches (十天干與十二地支), producing in a complete revolution, the Cycle of Cathay (甲子). Within the complexity of a Chinese horoscope, all these elements must be considered, but the most important single factor is the animal sign of the individual for this lands him, or her, with certain basic characteristics, advantages (and faults) of personality which are taken very seriously indeed in such questions as choosing a marriage or business, partner.

Legend has it that as he lay dying, the Lord Buddha summoned all the animals to bid them farewell and to leave them final gifts. Twelve animals turned up. In order of arrival at this side, these were the rat, ox (or buffalo), tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The Buddha gave them all immortality by naming a year after each of them in the order in which they had arrived. Legend also tells us why certain other animals are not included in the cycle. The cat, for instance, was believed to be too independent, according to one story, preferring to sleep rather than go to the Buddha. However, there are some Asian zodiacs, as in Vietnam, for instance, where the cat is used as a sign in place of the rabbit.

Whatever the origins of the whole arrangement, it is studied with great care and seriousness throughout Asia, but particularly by the Chinese who are, perhaps, more concerned by horoscopes, fortune-telling and the like, than any other people in the world. Any Asian knows the sign for his birth year, its characteristics and the ways in which his main personality features are likely to fit in with the other animal signs. Westerners might scoff at the system, but it is amazing how accurate these traits of character can be for the individual.

The good and bad features of every animal sign can be modified by such factors as the five different elements (五行) under which they were born—metal, wood, water, fire, earth. An earth tiger will, for instance, be quite different to a water tiger, but there are certain basic characteristics which may be identified within each of the twelve signs.

Note that as the lunar calendar usually starts between January 20 and February 29, one has to know the exact date of Chinese New Year for one’s particular birth sign.

 

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