The most commonly known examples of Chinese animal symbolism are the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. However, there is also a bewildering array of other animals that are featured in stories and festivals, and can be found as images almost everywhere, even on items of clothing.
Animal motifs can be found on ancient bronzes dating from as far back as the Hsia Dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BCE).
The Tsao Chuan (606 BCE) records the answer an emissary made to King Chuang when he asked a question about the animals depicted on some ritual vessels. The reply included the comment that the animals depicted on the vessels were to help people distinguish between good and bad animal spirits.
This spiritual aspect was important, and, as the animal designs contained magical significance, they were considered to be messengers from the spirit world.The Chinese have charming stories to explain virtually everything, and the origin of the twelve animal signs is no exception. According to legend, the ruler of heaven was the Jade Emperor, and it was he who decided which animals would be included.
The Jade Emperor had never visited Earth and was curious about the different animals who lived there. He asked his chief assistant to gather the animals together and bring them to him. His assistant explained that there were many thousands of different animals, and that it would take months to collect them all. The Jade Emperor thought about this, and asked his assistant to bring him the twelve most interesting animals.
The assistant went down to Earth, thinking about what he should do. He invited the rat to attend a meeting at six o'clock the following morning to meet the emperor. He also asked the rat to invite his friend, the cat. Invitations were also sent to the dog, the dragon, the horse, the monkey, the ox, the rabbit, the ram, the rooster, the snake, and the tiger.
The cat was thrilled to receive an invitation to meet the emperor and asked the rat to wake him up in the morning, because he often overslept. The rat agreed. That night, the rat looked at the cat as he slept. He saw how streamlined and handsome the cat appeared, and the rat became concerned that he would look bad in comparison. Consequently, when he woke up the following morning, he did not wake up the cat, and raced to the meeting on his own. When the rat arrived, all the other animals except for the cat, who was still fast asleep, were already there.
At six o'clock, the emperor came out and inspected the animals. He liked what he saw, but noticed that there were only eleven animals. His assistant was equally as concerned, and ordered a servant to go down to Earth and bring back the first animal he saw.
The servant found himself out in the country. Walking towards him was a farmer carrying his pig to market. He quickly explained his predicament, and the farmer gave him the pig to take up to heaven.
While this was going on, the rat was becoming concerned that he would not be noticed. He jumped onto the ox's back and started playing a small flute. The emperor was captivated by the rat and gave him first place, ahead of all the other animals. Second came the ox, as he had been good enough to allow the rat to jump on his back. Third came the tiger, because he looked strong and handsome. He was followed by the rabbit, because of his beautiful fur. The dragon came next, because he looked just like a huge snake with legs. He was followed by the snake, because of his undulating body. Following him came the horse, because of his composure and bearing, and the ram, because he had trumpet-like horns. The monkey was playful and agile, so he came ninth, and the fine-feathered rooster came tenth. In eleventh place came the dog, because he was faithful and protective, and at the end of the line, in twelfth place, came the pig.
As soon as the animals had been arranged in order, the cat arrived. He pleaded with the emperor to be considered, but it was too late - all the places had been taken. The cat saw the rat standing in the first position and chased him. Ever since that day, cats and rats have been sworn enemies.
Chinese astrology contains many animals in addition to the twelve animal signs. In the Three Lives system of astrology there are another twelve animals, all of whom are highly symbolic. These animals are unusual because although they are all found regularly in Chinese art and literature, they do not with the exception of the swallow and the pheasant - appear anywhere else in Chinese astrology. The animals in the Three Lives system are the phoenix, the Hon, the golden pheasant, the mandarin duck, the swallow, the heron, the stag, the peacock, the pigeon, the sparrow, the eagle, and the white crane.
There are also the animals of the twenty-eight consteUations. These are the crocodile, the sky dragon, the badger, the hare, the fox, the tiger, the leopard, the unicorn, the buffalo, the bat, the rat, the swaUow, the pig, the porcupine, the wolf, the dog, the pheasant, the rooster, the crow, the monkey, the gibbon, the tapir, the goat, the buck, the horse, the stag, the snake, and the earthworm.
In addition, there are four heraldic animals: the snake, the tiger, the phoenix, and the dragon. The snake is frequently replaced by the tortoise, and the tiger by the bear. Solely using basic Chinese astrology, we can come up with more than fifty different animals, aU of which contain symbolic meanings.