The lunar zodiac

In East Asia, the passage of time was traditionally measured by the lunar calendar, based on the cycle of the moon. Many East Asian cultures still use the lunar calendar for festive occasions, one of the most important being Lunar New Year, which falls somewhere between late January and early February. Because the lunar calendar is different from the solar Gregorian calendar, the exact date is different every year.

Each year in the lunar calendar is named after an animal, derived from Chinese folklore. The zodiac animals follow one another in an established order and are repeated every 12 years: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. In a folklore story that explains the origins of the cycle, the animals hold a race to determine their order. The rat uses trickery and comes first by hopping on the ox's back, then jumping ahead at the last moment. The custom of pairing an animal with a year in a 12-year cycle can be traced back to at least the Han dynasty (201 BC – 220 AD), and there are many legends and folktales surrounding the 12 zodiac animals, which are often depicted in East Asian art and design. A group of Chinese figures in our collection shows the zodiac animals with human bodies but animal heads. This way of portraying them became popular in the Tang dynasty (8th century).

Earthenware figures depicting the animals of the zodiac, early 8th century, China. Museum no. C.103-1929. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In Chinese folklore, each animal has particular characteristics, but using the animal of someone's birth year to say something about their character is a more recent development. There is no mention of such a belief in ancient Chinese texts. The use of animals to mark the years originated in China and spread throughout East and Central Asia. Some animals were adapted in line with local species – for example, the central Asian Turkic peoples replaced tiger with leopard, pig with elephant, and rat with camel. Vietnam uses a water buffalo instead of an ox, and a cat instead of a rabbit – while the cat is famously absent from the Chinese cycle. In some versions of the origins story, the rat cheats the cat out of the race, which explains the animosity between cats and rats. A historical reason for the exclusion of the cat is that it may not yet have been introduced to China at the time the zodiac first came into use.

Variations of the zodiac animals remain popular across East Asia and Southeast Asia, as countries such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand all celebrate the Lunar New Year. New Year's decorations often feature that year's animal, and the zodiac animals feature abundantly in art and design from these regions.

Enjoy a selection of zodiac animals from our Chinese, Japanese and Korean collections in the slideshow below:

Background image: Earthenware figures depicting the animals of the zodiac, early 8th century, China. Museum no. C.103-1929. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London