The 5 Elements

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Much of Chinese philosophy is built around the belief in the five elements and their abilities to interact with and create relationships between natural phenomena. The five elements have been part of Chinese culture almost from the beginning. Interestingly, few people outside the Asian world understand the importance of the five elements, especially how each relates to the workings of the Chinese Zodiac.

The five elements of wood, fire, Earth, metal and water are associated with five major planets in the Solar System: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury respectively. The five elements are naturally-occurring phenomena and they're believed to have both a generating and an overcoming influence on one another. For example, wood generates fire, water generates wood, water overcomes fire, fire overcomes metal, etc.

Other correlating factors of the five elements

Along with these generating and overcoming forces, the five elements of the Chinese Zodiac are also correlated with direction, color, season, body parts, tastes, and senses. Wood, for example correlates to the direction East, the season of Spring, the color blue or green, the taste of sour, the sense of sight, and the body parts gall bladder, liver and ring finger. The other four elements likewise have their own correlations.

The characteristics of the five elements, metal, wood, fire, water and Earth, impact the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac by assigning different characteristics to the animals. Since the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac actually represent a period of time, in this case a year (the 12 branches), assigning one of the five elements to each of the twelve years (12 branches) actually creates 60 different combinations. Rather than operating in 12-year cycles, the Chinese Zodiac is actually based on a system of 60-year cycles.

Another important concept in Chinese philosophy is Yin and Yang or the ability to compare as well as balance that which exists in life such as day and night, and femininity and masculinity. The concepts of Yin and Yang also affect the five elements and the Chinese Zodiac by assigning opposing forces or characteristics to each. There's a Yin wood and a Yang wood, a Yin metal and a Yang metal, and so on.

Five elements plus Yin and Yang

When Yin and Yang are applied to the five elements, there now becomes a total of ten elements or 10 stems, with each stem having an alternate reading. As it relates to the Chinese Zodiac, odd years are Yin years and even years are Yang.

The workings of Chinese Zodiac are confusing, but to summarize...

The Chinese believe your birth year does not represent your age but rather your position within this 60-year cycle. The animal traits as well as the additions of Yin and Yang and the five elements are what combine to determine "good" years and "bad," "great" fortune and "misfortune," "good" ages and "bad" and all the other lifestyle details that have enabled the Chinese Zodiac to be relied upon as a powerful tool of determining one's destiny.

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As sometimes happens with historical developments, several versions of the origin of the Chinese Zodiac exist. This is to be expected, especially when you consider that the Chinese Zodiac was established thousands of years ago. Most stories do seem to agree on one thing: the animals that make up the signs, or the 12 equal parts of the Chinese Zodiac, were the animals that appeared in response to an invitation. As a reward for appearing, these 12 animals were included on the Chinese Zodiac. As interesting as the story of the animals is, there's much more to the origin of the Chinese Zodiac than that.

Whether it was Buddha inviting the animals to celebrate his departure from this world or whether it was the Jade Emperor who invited the animals to attend a birthday celebration is one difference you'll uncover when researching the origin of the Chinese Zodiac. Another difference is the invitation itself. Some myths state that all animals were invited to a feast. Other stories mention that the animals were invited to participate in a race and as a reward for crossing the finish line the first 12 animals would appear on the Chinese Zodiac. Their order would correspond with the order that each crossed the finish line.

The first to cross the finish line was the rat, followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and finally, the pig. Interestingly, you'll find that most discussion of the origin of the Chinese Zodiac tends to focus on the order of the appearance of these animals. Perhaps this is because the story is easier to understand and much more entertaining than learning about the various physical and celestial elements that led to the creation of Chinese numbering systems.

Older than 2,000 years?

Although Buddha is a main character in the stories about the origin of the Chinese Zodiac, there is evidence that the Chinese Zodiac predates the era of Buddhism. The 12 earthly branches, which is a system devised by early Chinese astronomers for reckoning time, existed long before Buddhism was established. These astronomers closely monitored the orbit of the planet Jupiter which they referred to as the "Year Star." After extensive study, they realized that Jupiter's orbit occurred every 12 years. That's probably why the Chinese Zodiac is based on a system of years, not months.

Other evidence that the origin of the Chinese Zodiac predates Buddhism is use of the 10 heavenly stems. This is an early cycle numbering system developed and used during the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1027 BC). The 10 heavenly stems system is based on the belief that 10 heavenly suns each appeared in 10-day cycles. Each cycle was given a name and the names were supposedly based on the clans that made up the ruling class at that time.

Regardless of the origin of the Chinese Zodiac, its future as a fun and effective method of determining one's destiny is likely to live on for years!

Chinese Zodiac History

Legends and mythology are a big part of Chinese culture, especially in relation to the Chinese Zodiac. The 12 animals that appear on the Chinese Zodiac calendar include a rat, buffalo (ox), tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. It's an unusual combination of animals for sure, and their appearance on the Chinese Zodiac is the topic of countless legends and is deeply embedded in Chinese mythology.

Chinese Zodiac Animals

Most stories do seem to agree on one thing: the animals that make up the signs, or the 12 equal parts of the Chinese Zodiac, were the animals that appeared in response to an invitation. As a reward for appearing, these 12 animals were included on the Chinese Zodiac. As interesting as the story of the animals is, there's much more to the origin of the Chinese Zodiac than that.

Chinese Zodiac Elements

Much of Chinese philosophy is built around the belief in the five elements and their abilities to interact with and create relationships between natural phenomena. The five elements have been part of Chinese culture almost from the beginning. Interestingly, few people outside the Asian world understand the importance of the five elements, especially how each relates to the workings of the Chinese Zodiac.

Chinese Astrology

Astrology has for years played a significant role in Chinese culture. The depiction on a circular chart of 12 different animals representing the 12-year cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar was built on the foundation of astronomy and Chinese astrology which has itself been in existence for over 5,000 years.

Chinese Zodiac Chart

Along with birth year animals, the Chinese Zodiac also represents inner animals and secret animals. We're probably all aware of the 12 animals or signs depicted on the Chinese Zodiac. Based on our year of birth, we understand that we're born under the sign of the Dog, or the Ox, or one of the 10 other signs. But the truth is it's the inner animals and the secret animals that actually tell the most about who we really are and what our futures hold.