Eek -- it's a rat! Don't worry: In the Chinese zodiac, the rat is imaginative, charismatic, shrewd and witty.

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Have you ever sat down at a Chinese restaurant and found yourself staring at a placemat with various animals and dates on it? Chances are, you were looking at the animals of the Chinese zodiac, a part of the Chinese calendar that cycles every 60 years. The animals of the zodiac represent particular personality traits, and people have looked to these figures for thousands of years to help them understand the world and their role and future in it.

The Western zodiac and its horoscopes predict or describe events happening on earth, while the Chinese zodiac is a cyclical calendar composed of different elements. The Chinese developed their zodiac sometime before 1000 B.C. Their complex astrological system divides the year into 24 parts, then combines them with a 28-part lunar zodiac and 12 branches corresponding to specific animals. We know that the Chinese zodiac was developed thousands of years ago, but we don't know its exact origins. Even so, a there are clues that give us a glimpse of how some believe this astrological system came to be.

One of the most popular legends explaining the Chinese zodiac claims that Buddha invited the animals of earth to a celebration in heaven. Twelve animals attended the celebration, and the first to arrive at the party was the rat. He was followed by the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig. Some stories describe how the animals competed with one another to get to the celebration first. Although the specifics of the legends can differ slightly, in each story the order in which the animals arrived was the same and determined their place on the zodiac calendar.

According to the Chinese zodiac, the unique personality of each animal is passed on to those born in the years it rules. For example, the rat is said to represent creativity and innovation. The persuasive, imaginative rat is a quick thinker and serves as the leader of the Chinese zodiac. Those born during the year of the rat, according to the zodiac, have these qualities as well. Similarly, those born in the year of the ox are seen as stable and hard-working. Characteristics of the other animals are as follows:

  • tiger: authoritative, intense, courageous
  • rabbit: popular, compassionate, family-minded
  • dragon: energetic, fearless
  • snake: charming, smart, introverted
  • horse: independent, hard-working
  • ram: shy, kind
  • monkey: fun, energetic
  • rooster: attentive, emotional, hard-working
  • dog: patient, faithful
  • pig: loving, honest

But there's a lot more the Chinese zodiac than basic personality traits. Read the next page to learn how elements play into each person's particular sign.