The Original Asian Zodiac

zodiac girl

If you have ever seen a Chinese Horoscope, you will have seen the twelve animals of the zodiac.  They are, in descending order:

Rat, Cow, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Chicken, Dog, and Boar.  

That’s what shows up on the Chinese horoscope.  It’s a bit different for the Việt horoscope.  This is what we have:

Rat, Water Buffalo, Tiger, CatKronosaurus, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Chicken, Dog, and Pig.

Why the difference, and what the hell is a kronosaurus, you might ask.  Well, there is a really good answer to that because you see, we actually have a history behind these animals, spanning at least 12,000 years, and the history ties in with the developing civilization and linguistics of the ancient Việt culture.  However, to talk about all twelve would take many postings, and I don’t really have that much time or space in this one posting to talk about all the fascinating details of the Việt horoscope other than the fact that it has been around for a very long time.  In this initial posting, I am only going to have enough time to zero in on the three animals that seem to have been left out for one reason or another.

Ancient Chinese historians have written that back around circa 2300 BC, the kingdom of Việt Thường sent to Emperor Yao a one-thousand-year-old tortoise (at the time, it was still living), which carried on its back an inscription in (of all possible languages) Chữ Khoa Đẩu, an ancient Vietnamese language which was the precursor of Chử Nôm as well as Hanzi, of everything that happened from the time Sky and Earth had been born.  Emperor Yao had it copied and named it The Turtle Calendar.

As Chinese history states, he was credited with discovering the Chinese Lunar Calendar, and that is true because as you can see, he ‘discovered’ it from the inscriptions on the tortoise’s back.  This is why I am going to refer to this zodiac as the Vietnamese Zodiac from this point forward because I want to share with you a few facets of the origins of this fascinating calendar.

It starts with this:

Tí , Sửu , Dần , Mẹo , Thìn , Tỵ , Ngọ , Mùi , Thân , Dậu , Tuất , Hợi

These are the actual signs of the Việt zodiac and it is more involved than simply having an individual animal representing a year.  It ties in with the I Ching and the larger cycles of decades and of hundreds of years and not just with the twelve years, as most folks believe.  I will go into the details of the connection between the Việt Zodiac with the I Ching in another posting.  Believe me, I can get into the nitty gritty of this thing ad-nauseum, so for those who are not in the least bit interested in the I Ching/Calendar connection, simply skip that posting, as it does get tedious, mathematically.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at this Turtle Calendar and isolate the more interesting animals.  Let’s start with the Water Buffalo.

Water Buffalo

trau001This is the Chử Nôm Việt script for Trâu, the water buffalo.  It was originally pronounced Sửu in the ancient tongue and has kept enough of the sound to be easily recognizable for what it is, even in modern Việt pronunciation.

The water buffalo is the second sign of the zodiac—and yes, it is a water buffalo and not a cow or an ox. That got changed later, because the Han Chinese didn’t have water buffaloes in the northern areas where they originally inhabited.

The water buffalo is very important to my ancestors because it is the symbol of the development of wet rice agriculture, which had been mastered in Southeast Asia no later than 12,000 BC.

Wet rice agriculture was important to the region because it allowed us to settle in one location and feed a large population instead of being a hunter/gatherer society which could only maintain small communities because of the need to continually be on the move in search of game.

With the ability to settle in one area came all the other aspects of a civilization—a writing system, law structure, philosophy, mathematics, etc.  All this was made possible with the help of a water buffalo and also is a huge tell-tale sign that ancient Vietnamese had been growing rice for thousands of years.

According to Dr. Navaratna Rajaram in an article written for [1]

A vast subcontinent, known as Sunda Land, larger than India, was submerged when sea levels rose as the Ice Age ended. These tropical lands, and not the temperate regions at higher latitudes like the Fertile Crescent were where agriculture began. This is a scientific fact.

Folks, that was more than 14,000 years ago that wet rice had been cultivated by my ancestors.  Since the water buffalo was the animal that was specifically bred and domesticated to do the hard and heavy work in the swampy rice fields, it carried on its back the ancient rice industry, and was therefore honored as one of the zodiac signs.


meoThe character for Mèo is the same as the Chinese character, but we pronounce it a bit differently.  The zodiac pronunciation is a more ancient sound, Mẹo, but still close enough so that we can draw a direct connective line between the ancient word and the modern word.

Cats have always been important.  Even the Egyptians knew this.  They worshiped the cat as a deity more than 10,000 years ago, so it has been around for a long time.

Compared that to the genealogy of rabbits and it is clear.

All of today’s breeds of rabbit are derived from the wild rabbit, which originated in the Western Mediterranean region.  It is probable that the Romans started to domesticate them during the third century B.C. [2]  


With such a short time span, the rabbit could not possibly have been a part of such an ancient calendric system.  So…for fans of Tohru and Kyo, guess what…he has always been a part of the original zodiac and has never been kicked out.

For the Việt people, cats have always been important.  They were domesticated, just as dogs had been, and they played a crucial role in keeping the food stores safe from vermin such as rats, worms, and birds which allowed the people to retain their harvest.

This is in direct contrast to rabbits who are known to damage fields and destroy crops.  For the Việt people, rabbits are not a good luck sign.  The only thing we ever did with them was to hunt them as an added source of protein and to keep them out of our fields so we could retain as much of the harvest as possible.

The real reason why it got changed to rabbit was because the word for cat and rabbit sounds the same, so when the Han Chinese adapted the Việt calendar, they adopted the rabbit to replace the cat; hence the mix-up.


dragonOK, I admit.  Even this one took me by surprise because I had always thought this was the sign of the dragon.

But no.

My ancestors named the zodiac after real animals, not something that may or may not have been real.  The ancient word for dragon was thìn, but even more ancient than that, it was pronounced thuồng, which was short for thuồng luồng.

kronosaurus2Thuồng luồng means…well, the best definition for it would be something like a water-snake-crocodile-monster-looking-creature which existed in the far distant past but is no longer alive today.

Scientists call them Kronosaurus and they were huge.  Their body length is approximately 33 feet long and they lived during the middle cretaceous period, roughly 110 million years ago.  Their close cousin, the plesiosaurs can be found (from what I’ve heard) in and around the Loch Ness area.

Dragon_thap_daothinh_2000Somehow or other, my ancestors met up with this creature.  They represented the thuồng luồng in their art and named it Giao Long, the very first water dragon. [3] If we look at the drawing, this is much closer to the kronosaurus than the dragons that are represented in more modern times.

The Giao Long dragon can be found on many archaeological objects and showed up early, in our mythology and in our zodiac.  So many images of the thuồng luồng kronosaurus has been found that I can only surmise my ancient ancestors actually had some dealing with this creature, and that during periods of flooding or typhoons, these ‘water dragons’ had a lasting impact on them.

(continue to The Original Asian Zodiac 2: The Moon Calendar)

1.  Gift from Southeast Asia.  Dr. Navaratna Rajaram.

2.  Rabbit Breeds: Booklet No. 401: Animal Husbandry- Rabbits: RBS-2

3.  Giao Long Dragon.  Wikipedia image.

4 thoughts on “The Original Asian Zodiac

  1. Hello, I stumbled on your website looking at water buffalo ( don’t be judgemental ) and it reminded me of what my Dad told me about buffalo when he was in China after WW 1 . That was the negative side of them ( the front end ) About the horoscope ,loved it but Kronosaurus!!? We were little furry thingies in the undergrowth at the time, it was a leg pull, yes? How ever you reference Oppenheimer’s Eden in East. Great book ( last third heavy) and details what the effect of the flooding of Sundaland and having Salt water crocodiles as neighbours .That would stick in our memory. The Chinese alligator was supposed to be the origin of dragons but they are such inoffensive little guys it just seems unlikely. But Salties ! Especially as the lack of hunting huge would be the norm fit the bill perfectly. It’s documented how a mandarin in Southern China got rid of the last of the Salties in China. Not sure when ,think it was 10 century .
    Best wishes Joe.


  2. Thanks for your response. Much of our ancient history is either long lost or so steeped in misunderstanding that all we can do is speculate. Happy hunting for the treasure nuggets of wisdom!


  3. Actually, in a piece of our ancient literature (I’m a Vietnamese) shows that Thuồng Luồng or Giao Long is NOT a crocodile. It’s said: các loại thuồng luồng, cá sấu, which roughly translated into those kinds of “thuồng luồng” and crocodiles, which means crocodiles can’t be the mysterious thuồng luồng, many of the stories also described thuồng luồng more like a large monitor lizard than a croc


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