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Chinese Tang Style Animal Zodiac figuresSome scholars believe that the Chinese calendar existed as far back as 14th century BCE., and that concrete evidence of the lunisolar calendar and its existence are written on the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE) oracle bones from which it is believed the Chinese script developed.

There are many theories, myths and legends surrounding the origins of the Chinese animal zodiac calendar. One theory is that the philosopher Wang Chong, of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) invented the Chinese zodiac. Another myth is related to the time of the Jade Emperor Yu Huang Shangdi who was also to become the most important deity representing the first god and ruler of the heavens according to Chinese Taoist beliefs.

According to the Qing historian Zhao Yi’s “Yu Yu Cong Juan” in volume thirty-four, it mentions that the twelve phases of the zodiac originated during the Eastern Han period. However, in the bamboo slips excavated from a pre Qin (206BC – 206 BC) tomb in 1975 in Yunmeng County in Hubei Province, a relatively complete zodiac system was recorded in which there were twelve species of animals related to the Chinese calendar.

Dr. Jeffrey Kotyk in his doctoral thesis Buddhist Dissertation Fellowship and Astral Magic in the Tang Dynasty , writes about the connection between Buddhism and astrology and is considered a specialist in this subject.

Each one of the zodiac animals is assigned to one of the years in a 12-year cycle, each with their own attributes and characteristics, and are associated with one of the five elements, wood, earth, fire, metal and water, as well as the life force referred to as Yang (active) and Yin (passive).

Unlike the Western astrological signs which are based on the constellations, the twelve animals representing the Chinese zodiac do not have a direct link to the constellations, but are linked more so to observations of the sun’s longitude and the phases of the moon.

During the Shang Dynasty Chinese astrologers and cosmologists invented the “10 tian gan”, referred to as “heavenly stems”, used in combination with “12 di zhi” referred to as the “earthly branches” for chronological purposes, and are the signs used to designate the hours, days, months and years of a sixty-year cycle.

In ancient times many people were uneducated and illiterate, making these signs difficult to understand. To make it easier for most people to relate to and remember, twelve animals were chosen to symbolize the “12 earthly branches”.

During the Han Dynasty elements of Confucius teachings and beliefs such as the Yin and Yang philosophy, five elements, Heaven and Earth Confucian values and hierarchical social structures were brought together to formalize the philosophical principles of Chinese medicine, divination, astrology and alchemy.

The British historian and biochemist Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham (1900-1995), renowned for his research into the history of Chinese science and technology describes the philosopher, politician, historian, astrologer and naturalist Zou Yan (305BC – 240 BC), a scholar of the Jixia Academy who lived during the Warring States period (5th to 3rd centuries BC) as the original founder of all Chinese Scientific thoughts regarding the five elements and Yin and Yang.

Although Zou Yan’s writings have been lost in time, some of his writings were quoted in early Chinese texts.

The few examples of animal zodiac figures one sees today date to the Tang and Ming Dynasty.



In December 1975, a large number of bamboo slips were excavated in a Qin tomb in Shuihudi in Yunmeng County, Hubei Province. Each bamboo slips is around 20cm long and 5mm to 8mm wide. The script written on the bamboo was written in the late Warring States period during the reign of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty.

The writings relate to various subjects from fortune telling, the legal system of the day, administrative documents, medical works of the Qin Dynasty, as well as the occupation of good and bad times

In 2002 another 37,000 Qin dynasty bamboo slips were excavated from a well typical of those built during the Warring States Period (475BC – 221 BC). This particular well was apparently not meant to hold water but instead to house these strips

These documents also cover a range of subjects such as memorial service, the recorded number of people living in the country, tax regulation, financial accounts, food stored by the local governments, military personal, court rulings etc.

Chinese Animal Zodiac Twelve Year Cycle

Chinese Tang Style Animal Zodiac figures
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