The twenty-eight lunar houses are classified into four quarters containing seven constellations each. They are identified with four fantastic creatures15 , celestial guardians. The constellations or notable stars to which they are attached are indicated after them:
The shape of the guardian animals as well as the distribution of colors became fixed under the Han under the influence of the theory of the five elements.
The yellow unicorn (qilin) is associated with the fifth element, earth.
The Chinese signs are a set of twelve animals, they are, in order: Mouse or Rat – Buffalo or Ox – Tiger – Hare, Rabbit – Dragon or Lizard – Snake – Horse – Goat, Goat or Sheep – Monkey – Rooster or Phoenix – Dog – Pig, Boar or Elephant.
In some countries that have adopted them, the cat replaces the rabbit and the bear replaces the pig, and this is also true for other animals. These signs are associated in the Chinese sexagesimal cycle with the twelve earthly branches, which in combination with the ten celestial stems constitute the oldest attested Chinese system of counting time.
Legends tell how the animals were chosen and how their order was determined. Most often, the selection is made through a race under the aegis of the Jade Emperor, chief of the gods, or the Buddha. Sometimes it is the pig who referees, and the incidents multiply because of his incompetence.
The three most famous anecdotes:
- The race ending with the crossing of a river, the ox, good prince, would have accepted to carry the rat between its horns. But at the moment of touching the bank, this one jumped on the ground, ahead of the ox; it is thus that it became the first sign.
- The absence of the cat is said to be due to the malice of his friend the rat, whom the Jade Emperor had entrusted with the task of summoning the animals for the selection of the zodiac signs. Deceived by the rat, the cat got angry, and since then they are natural enemies. It was nevertheless retained in the Vietnamese version where it replaces the rabbit.
- When the Jade Emperor organized a party with 13 animals that can go to stars, but the rat betrayed the cat and did not wake him when he took a nap before the party, because he did not like the cat.