Based on the cycles of the moon, the Chinese zodiac consists of a repeating cycle of 12 years. A different animal sign represents each year. Each of these animals is associated with certain personality traits, and individuals are thought to share the characteristics of the animal sign they are born under.
No one knows exactly when the Chinese zodiac was created, but most sources agree it was sometime during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.—9 A.D.) of the Zhan Guo (Warring States) Period. This makes it at least 2,000 years old. Several different explanations exist for the origins of this system, including one told in popular Buddhist legend. This folk story states that, before his departure from Earth, Buddha summoned all the animals to him for a final farewell. Only 12 animals showed up, and in reward they received their own year in the zodiac. According to the story, the names of the years in the zodiac represent the order in which the animals arrived. The rat was the first to arrive, making the Year of the Rat the first in this 12-year cycle. Next came the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake and horse. To follow were the sheep, monkey, cock, dog and, finally, the pig.
Another somewhat similar story claims it was the Jade Emperor who created the zodiac. According to this legend, the emperor held a race on his birthday to determine the zodiac. The animals were the race participants, and the order in which they appear in the zodiac is the order in which they placed. Many stories suggest it was the rat’s intelligence and willingness to deceive that helped him win the race. The Chinese Zodiac is also deeply rooted in Taoism, which is why some visual representations of the zodiac have a yin-yang in the center.
Different sources attribute different characteristics to people born in the year of the Rat, but most agree that Rat signs are full of energy, which makes them very talkative and social beings. Rats are also said to be ambitious and hardworking, although their quest for worldly success may sometimes lead to greed and over-spending. These perfectionists are also described as analytical, inventive, innovative, passionate, honest, imaginative and organized. Combined, these qualities are thought to make Rats great natural leaders, and thus may do well in business or politics. They are also said to excel in creative careers such as writing, music and comedy.
Although some may shrug it off as silliness, many Chinese people place a great deal of significance in the zodiac. Some may consult the zodiac before embarking on a new romantic relationship, friendship or business partnership. When it comes to compatibility, sources say that individuals born in the year of the Rat are best paired with Monkey and Dragon signs, whereas the Rat does not make for a good match with the Horse or Rabbit.
Individuals born under the Rat sign during the 20th century have a birth year of 1900, 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984 or 1996. Some famous Chinese people born in the Year of the Rat include Lu Su (172—217), a prominent Kingdom of Wu advisor during the Three Kingdoms era, and Wei Zheng (580—643), a well-known prime minister who served during the early Tang Dynasty. Several famous Chinese poets were also born in the Year of the Rat, including Du Fu (712—770), Li Qingzhao (1084—unknown) and Bai Juyi (772—846). The Ming Dynasty also saw several famous Rat signs, such as emperor Zhu Di (1360—1424) and military hero Qi Jiguang (1528—1588). Outside of China, some famous Rats include Winston Churchill (1874—1965), William Shakespeare (1564—1616), Wilt Chamberlain (1936—1999) and George H.W. Bush (1924—).