Twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac

Twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac

Qing dynasty (1644-1911), 19th century
Jade (nephrite)
H. each approx. 2 in. (5.1 cm)

The twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig) have played a significant role in Chinese culture since ancient times. They have been associated with the cardinal directions, times of the year, and certain constellations. As prognostic symbols, they have also been used to predict a person's character, fortune, life, and even marriage prospects.

Although historical records of these animals date from the third century b.c., the earliest extant examples of their representation are known from the early sixth century, when they were depicted in wall paintings. Pottery figures with human bodies and animal heads were particularly popular in subsequent periods, but gradually went out of style after the Tang dynasty (618-907). These jade animals, made in the nineteenth century, seem to reflect a revival of these traditional forms as well as a renewed interest in occult Chinese beliefs.