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The Twelve Animal Signs
In ancient China, cyclical patterns were created as methods for documenting years. A popular folk method created for documenting years was the Twelve Animal Signs method. Following this method, every year is assigned to one of 12 repeating animal names or "signs". Signs include: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar.
The animal signs also serve a useful social tool for finding out people's ages. Instead of directly asking how old a person is, people often ask what is his / her animal sign. With an animal sign one can narrow another person's age to within a range of 12 years, and with a bit of common sense, one can deduce the exact age of another person. More often, though, people ask for animal signs not to compute a person's exact numerical age, but to simply know who is older among friends and acquaintances.
According to Chinese legend, the twelve animals quarreled one day as to who was to head the cycle of years. The gods were asked to decide and they opted to hold a contest: whoever was to reach the opposite bank of the river would be first, and the rest of the animals would receive their positions with the cycle according to where they finished.
All the twelve animals gathered at the riverbank and jumped in. Unknown to the ox, the rat had jumped on his back. As the ox was about to jump ashore, the rat jumped off the ox's back, and won the race. The pig, who was very lazy, ended up last. That is why the rat is the first year of the animal cycle, the ox second, and the pig last.