The Story of the Twelve Earthly Branches
A long time ago, when the world was very young, there was a beautiful land called Zhonngguo, which means the Middle Kingdom. To this very day the people who live there call it by this name, but we call it China.
The people of this enchanted land were very wise and closely watched the world around them. They watched the skies above and the oceans below; they observed the trees blossoming in the spring and shedding their leaves in the fall. They noticed the world as it grew green in the summer and as it dreamed under a blanket of snow in the winter. And they watched the animals, both wild and tame, as they went about their lives through every season. In this way the people of the Middle Kingdom learned how to live in harmony with nature. In fact, this way of living became so important to many of them that they gave it a name: Taoism (pronounced "Dowism"). Some of those who studied this way of living and followed it closely each day became knowledgeable and wise priests.
These priests knew many things about the world: They could feel in the wind when the rains would come, and they could predict how great the harvest would be. But neither they nor the people of Zhonngguo had a way of marking and dividing time, as we do today with our calendar. And strangely enough, they did not always understand each other as well as they understood the animals around them.
How did they come to be able to mark time and understand their neighbors and friends? Here is how one story tells it
Some of the priests who lived in the Middle Kingdom were quite old; they had lived through many years. And as they looked back on their lives and thought about all that had happened in Zhonngguo, they began to see that some years were full of slow-but-steady effort and patient strength, as though the strong and steady Ox were in charge. Other years seemed full of courageous deeds and daring, just like powerful Tiger. Some were years of action and success, as though Monkey ruled over all, while others were time for careful thought and planning, as though guided by Snake. After talking to one another and closely watching the animals around them, they discovered that each year they could recall seemed to be influenced by one of twelve different animals: Ox, Tiger, Monkey, Snake, Rat, Boar, Rabbit, Dog, Horse, Rooster, Sheep, and (whether real or not!) the important Dragon.
"A ha!" the priests said to one another. This meant to them that all time was governed by a repeating cycle of twelve years ruled by these twelve animals, an Ox year followed by a Tiger year, followed by a Rabbit year, and so on until all twelve years had gone by and the Ox year came around again--much like time for us is governed by a repeating cycle of twelve months, January followed by February followed by March, and so on until all twelve months have gone by and January comes around again. The priests called this cycle of twelve years the Twelve Earthly Branches--which today we call the Chinese zodiac.
But their discoveries didn't stop there. Not only years were influenced by these twelve animals. All the people they observed seemed to be ruled by them too! Those born in a year ruled by Rooster, a year of hard work and discipline, were, sure enough, the hardest working, most disciplined people in the Middle Kingdom. And those born in a peaceful and happy Sheep year were the calmest and most content people anyone knew.
The priests had discovered a way of both dividing time and understanding people--all in all, an amazing feat for which Huang Ti, the Jade Emperor, praised them greatly. "But," the emperor asked them, "if we are to use this system to help us mark time, we must know which year begins the cycle. You must decide which animal comes first."