How Does the Chinese Zodiac Work?

(Last Updated On: January 30, 2022)

This post is coming out around Chinese New Year, which means there’s a new animal rotating in for the year as its mascot. 2022 is the year of the tiger, while 2021 was the year of the ox. We’ll go through the full rotation in the post. But you probably vaguely know about the animal rotation, even if you don’t observe Chinese New Year or follow the lunar calendar. But… Why is the rotation the way it is? How does the Chinese zodiac work?

Further Reading: What Is Chinese New Year?

The Signs and the Great Race

You’ve probably heard vaguely about the story of the Great Race before. It determines the order of the zodiac’s animals. The basic premise is exactly what it says on the tin; the Jade Emperor sat down one day and said that the years on the calendar would be named for each animal. Years would be awarded in the order the animals made it to him, and all the animals had to cross a river. Alternatively known as the Heavenly Grandfather, the Jade Emperor is basically the monarch of all heavenly deities and is often depicted as the first god.

The Rat took advantage of the Ox, riding it across the river and coming in first. The Ox came in second. Third was the Tiger, followed by the Rabbit and Dragon. During the race the Rabbit almost drowned, but was saved by the Dragon–who also took a detour to give a local village rain. The Horse and Snake were next–but the Snake was wrapped around the Horse’s leg and scared it just long enough for the Snake to come sixth and the Horse, seventh. Next were the Goat, Monkey, and Rooster in that order, who worked together to complete the race. The Dog came eleventh because it was playing in the water, and the Pig came last because it took a snack in the middle of the race and took a nap. 

Anyway, here’s the order in a numbered list because words are hard to follow.

  1. The Rat
  2. The Ox
  3. The Tiger
  4. The Rabbit
  5. The Dragon
  6. The Snake
  7. The Horse
  8. The Goat
  9. The Monkey
  10. The Rooster
  11. The Dog
  12. The Pig


You might be wondering why cats are omitted from the Chinese zodiac. Fair question. The most common historical narrative is that the story behind the zodiac became common knowledge before domesticated cats were a huge part of Chinese daily life. The Cat is included in retellings of the Great Race though. It’s said that the Cat was a trickster like the Rat, and rode on the back of the Ox. However, right as the Ox took the two to the end of the race, the Rat pushed the Cat into the river–and the Cat drowned. This is also said to be the origin story for why cats hate water and why they are effective rat-hunters.

Another retelling holds that the Rat tricked the Cat into missing the race.

Fun trivia fact, the Vietnamese zodiac does feature the Cat in place of the Rabbit (all other animals are the same). It’s likely because the words for “cat” and “rabbit” in Chinese and Vietnamese are phonetically similar

Inner and Secret Animals

If your familiarity with the Chinese zodiac ends with “it’s the year of the X” and “I was born in the year of the Y”; the idea of hidden, inner, or secret animals might seem like nonsense to you. Most Western discussion around Chinese astrology stops at the animal signs assigned to each year, which is broadly meant to represent how one presents themselves (or how they are perceived). 

Based on the Four Pillars, the zodiac also bears significance not to just the year in which one was born, but the month, day, and hour. The month is broadly considered to be the most important when considering one’s adult life and is based on the Chinese agricultural calendar–which coexists with the Lunar one. Where the Lunar calendar can deviate by as much as a month from the Gregorian one, this calendar deviates only by a day, beginning on the 3rd or 4th of February. They don’t line up 1:1 with Gregorian months, though each animal does govern about a one-month period. The month that lines up with one’s zodiac sign is referred to as the “inner animal”.

  1. Rat: December 6 – January 5
  2. Ox: January 6 – February 3
  3. Tiger: February 4 – March 5
  4. Rabbit: March 6 – April 5
  5. Dragon: April 6 – May 5
  6. Snake: May 6 – June 5
  7. Horse: June 6 – July 5
  8. Goat: July 6 – August 5
  9. Monkey: August 6 – September 5
  10. Rooster: September 6 – October 5
  11. Dog: October 6 – November 5
  12. Pig: November 6 – December 5

Hours and Days

Depending on the hour in which you were born, you also have a secret animal. Each animal governs a two hour period of each day, starting at 11 PM with the Rat. The day gives one their “true animal”.

  1. Rat: 11 PM – 1 AM
  2. Ox: 1 AM – 3 AM
  3. Tiger: 3 AM – 5 AM
  4. Rabbit: 5 AM – 7 AM
  5. Dragon: 7 AM – 9 AM
  6. Snake: 9 AM – 11 AM
  7. Horse: 11 AM – 1 PM
  8. Goat: 1 PM – 3 PM
  9. Monkey: 3 PM – 5 PM
  10. Rooster: 5 PM – 7 PM
  11. Dog: 7 PM – 9 PM
  12. Pig: 9 PM – 11 PM

Reading one’s animal by day is far more complicated than it might seem at face value. That’s because we have seven days per week, but the agricultural calendar has ten days in each week–neither of which line up nicely with the number twelve. This is partially based on the fixed element of each animal and the element of each day–the element of your day is governed partially by the hour in which you were born. Which if you wanted to figure out, would require you to know a lot about the specific day and time you were born, as well as a lot of math. 

See if you know the most obscure zodiac animal here.



About Kyler 686 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.