The twelve animals actually represent earthly branches, namely: Tzu, Ch’ou, Yin, Mao, Ch’en, Ssu, Wu, Wei, Shen, Yu, Hsu, and Hai. The sign Yin corresponds to wood, its proper animal is the tiger. Hsu corresponds to earth, its animal is dog. Ch’ou and Wei correspond to earth likewise, Ch’ou having as animal the ox, and Wei having the sheep. Wood overcomes earth, therefore the dog, the ox and the sheep are overpowered by the tiger. Hai goes with water, its animal being the boar. Ssu goes with fire, and has the snake as animal. Tzu means, also water, its animal being the rat. Wu also corresponds to fire, the animal is the horse. Water overcomes fire, therefore the boar devours the snake. Fire is quenched by water, therefore, when the horse eats the excrements of rats, its belly swells up.
Further in the text, it notes the relationship of the animals to the hours and why the animals were thus selected:
During the Tzu hour (11 p.m. – 1 a.m.), the power of the element of Yin reaches its paramount point, there is stillness, deceit and darkness. For this reason, the Rat is associated with this Yin element as the Rat usually conceals itself in darkness, hidden from everyone. This is the opposite with the Wu hour (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) when the Yang element reaches its greatest height. There is bright lights, ease of movements, firmness and robust action. For this reason, the Horse is associated as he is swift and fast.
The Ch’ou hour (1 a.m. – 3 a.m.) is the period ruled by the Yin. Parents show kindness and love to their young offspring, caring for their every need. The association is that of the Ox for always licking their calves with parental tenderness. Again this is contracted with the Wei hour (1 p.m. – 3 p.m.) for the Yang element rises and there is the observance of propriety. The Sheep is so associated for the lamb always is in a kneeling position when taking milk from its mother which is a sign of decorum and filial piety.
In the Yin hour (3 a.m. – 5 a.m.) it is beginning of dawn and the break of day and the Yang element gains supremacy and becomes intense. This hour is associated with the Tiger for its ferocious nature. In contrast, the Shen hour (3 p.m. – 5 p.m.) is the time when Yin begins to gain the upper hand, implying artifice. The Monkey is so associated because it is by nature clever, crafty and cunning.
Both the Mao hour (5 a.m. – 7 a.m.) and the Yu hour (% p.m. – 7 p.m.) are the commencing hours for both the sun and the moon and the two animals become one. The Hare is associated with Mao and the Cock with Yu. With the Hare, the doe licks the buck’s hair, and through this sensitive touch conceives without intercourse, while the Cock rides on the back of the hen and contact is established without feeling.
With the Ch’en hour (7 a.m. – 9a.m.) and the Ssu hour (9 a.m. – 11 a.m.), the Yang element rises up and makes transformations. The Dragon is at its best in transformation, with the snake taking the second place. The Dragon and the Snake are associated with Ch’en and Ssu respectively as both are capable of transformation. During both the Hsu hour (7 p.m. – 9 p.m.) and the Hai hour (9 p.m. – 11 p.m.), the Yin element declines and it is time to be safeguarded. For this nature of watchfulness, the Dog is pre-eminent, with the boar taking second place. Both of these animals are calm creatures and are associated with Hsu and Hai respectively.
The selection of the twelve animals could have been based on the Yin and Yang contrasting principles as six of the animals are domestically and the other six are wild. To the Chinese this principle of the Yin and Yang duality holds that all things in the universe are produced by the harmonious interaction of these two opposite forces. The Chinese believe that it is on the blending of the forces of this dualistic principle that their harmony depends. In addition, the Chinese also assigned each of the twelve animals to correspond with the Five Elements. This cycle of the twelve animals is common also to many peoples of Eastern Asia and used by them for the numeration and designation of years.
In China, this cycle is a correlate of the duodenary cycle of the twelve earthly branches arranged as follows:
Although Wang Ch’ung in his Lun-heng is perhaps the oldest noting the use of this cycle among the Chinese in the first century A.D., nevertheless, it must be assumed that since it was already common practice at that time, it must have existed earlier. According to another contemporary work, Wu-Yueh ch’un-ch’iu, this cycle denotation was already in use in the beginning of the sixth century B.C., so that it predates the birth of Buddha which would invalidate the first popular story of the twelve animals. In excavated discoveries in China, the duodenary cycle of the twelve earthly branches were inscribed on the oracle bones used for divination during the Shang dynasty (1766-1123 B.C.). Moreover, on the oracle bones, evidence showed that the Chinese had marked their years according to the position of the planet Jupiter passing through twelve constellations of years, the period in which Jupiter completes one revolution around the sun. Each year was designated by the duodenary characters denoting that part of the horizon in which Jupiter’s position was at during the year. In conclusion, the selection of the twelve animals, as examined earlier in the Li-hai-chi and the Lun-heng, is based on the Yin/Yang and Five Elements principles along with other symbolical and allegorical meanings. The cycle of twelve animals was primarily used as a popular measure for the illiterate, peasants and those unable to comprehend the more technical duodenary cycle to chronicle the years.
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