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The eastern zodiac is similar to the western one in that is consists of a repeating cycle of 12 'totems' that correspond to personality types - the eastern ones are all animals, while the western ones are only partially so (e.g. Aries, Taurus, Leo, Scorpio). The number 12 is one of those numbers often given mythical significance. While the western signs of the zodiac each represent a month, eastern ones each primarily represent a year, though they are also applied to both months and hours. With both types of zodiac, a popular activity is calculating the romantic compatibility between two people.
The 12 signs of the Chinese cycle, in order, are: the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Boar/Pig. (The Cat missed out on the Chinese Zodiac alternately because the Rat purposively gave it the wrong meeting time, or because the Rat pushed it off the Ox into the river during their crossing.) They are governed by the 5 Eastern Elements. Earth, being the central element, governs all the signs but chiefly the Dragon, Rat, and Ox. The rest break down as follows:
- Water Signs
- Metal Signs
- Fire Signs
- Wood Signs
- Rabbit (Cat in Vietnam)
- Dragon (Naga in Thailand)
The Tiger and the Dragon are commonly regarded as the two most powerful signs, but since There Can Be Only One, the two are Arch Enemies. Other rivalries and affinities also exist, however - for example, two Tigers rarely get along.
There are other methods to classify the signs, all of which can be used together. These include polarity (yin/yang), power and romance, and trine (four in total). Unlike the elements, these repeat through the 12 as yang/yin and first/second/third/fourth - the first sign, Rat, is a yang sign in the first trine, while the eighth sign, Sheep, is a yin sign in the fourth trine. In addition, each pair of consecutive years corresponds to a specific element, which also affects a personality reading - an Ox is typically seen as stern and inflexible, but a Water Ox (1973) or Wood Ox (1985) will be seen as more flexible than a Metal Ox (1961) according to a simple reading.
The above listed is the Chinese Zodiac, and this is the one most familiar to most Western and Eastern audiences alike, but other Eastern zodiacs exist. The Korean and Japanese are functionally identical to the Chinese Zodiac, with changes primarily in nomenclature. The Vietnamese zodiac, however, replaces the rabbit with the cat (a pity Kyo wasn't born there), and the Thai zodiac replaces the dragon with the naga.
- Fruits Basket has a family of characters each of whom transforms into an animal of the zodiac if hugged by a member of the opposite sex. The characters all have personalities supposed to be typical of that animal. There is also a character who transforms into a 13th animal, the cat, who plays the villain in a traditional eastern myth about the origin of the zodiac, and one member of the family embodies the God or Emperor who set the race in the first place. Unfortunately for the owner of the dragon spirit, a little wordplay means that instead of turning into an actual dragon (which would be badass), he turns into a "baby dragon", or seahorse. The tiger owner isn't very intimidating, either. The "true tale" of what really happened in the Zodiac legend (and why the cat was excluded) isn't revealed until the end of the manga.
- Digimon Tamers had a group of 12 enemies called Devas, each Digimon representing an animal from the eastern zodiac. The rabbit Deva, Antylamon, became the partner of Henry's little sister after devolving into Lopmon.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! GX portrayed Judai and Misawa as the Dragon/Tiger rivalry at first.
- The ring girls from the Tournament arc of Flame of Recca are dressed thematically after the zodiac animals.
- The main characters of Eto Rangers are a team of anthromorphic animals made up of the Zodiac who fight monsters to prevent the destruction of the Novel Worlds. The race plays a crucial part of the plot, as it led to the Cat becoming the main antagonist for most of the anime.
- There is a fanart combining this with Pokémon (its kind of a long stretch actually, due to Arcanine being a dog).
- Magic: The Gathering. The Portal: Three Kingdoms set has 12 creatures corresponding to the Zodiac signs.
- There's a retelling of the Zodiac Race for children called something like "The Great Race," which describes the race as having been a contest of six teams of two - Rat was paired with Ox, and so on. Every participant was given a character that fit with their personality type, and many didn't finish the race at all (Snake and Horse, for example, were paired together, and Snake twined himself around Horse's neck to be the guide. However, Horse stubbornly elected to take the road that Snake advised against, leaving them trapped in an endless forest with Snake going "I Told You So"), and when Rat passed the finish line, the placement of the animals at that moment determined their place in the Zodiac. Don't remember where the Cat came in.
- The rat tricked the cat into thinking the race was a day later than it really was, so the cat showed up to late to get on the calender. That's why cats hunt rats.
- The fact that Judge Dee was born under the sign of the Tiger comes up in one or two stories.
- There is a book called Chinese Astrology by Suzanne White. It goes through the 12 animals, describes their characteristics and their relationships with each other.
- Jane Lindskold's Breaking the Wall trilogy has thirteen family lines representing the Eastern Zodiac and the Cat. The characters subvert some of the details noted above, such as the current Tiger and Dragon being Childhood Friends. Pearl, the current Tiger, is initially hostile to a second Tiger when he appears, but she eventually warms up to him.
- Sufjan Stevens' album Enjoy Your Rabbit is labeled "Programmatic songs for the Chinese Zodiac". It's fourteen tracks of instrumental electronica, each named for an animal of the Zodiac, except the intro track (Year of the Asthmatic Kitty) and the epilogue (Year of Our Lord).
- Year of the Cat by Al Stewart.
- Year of the Rat by Badly Drawn Boy - also doubles as a Music Video of Heartwarming.
- The World Ends With You has each clothing brand based one of the 12 Animals, with the 13th (Gatito) being based on the Cat.
- In Okami, the Celestial Brush Gods are represented by the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, as well as the Cat.
- Mega Man Star Force also does the Eastern Zodiac in addition to the Western Zodiac with the following symbols Ox (Taurus Fire), Sheep (Kung Foo Kid), Snake (Queen Ophiuca), Horse (Pegasus Magic), and Dragon (Dragon Sky).
- King's Quest V Lampshades the rivalry between The Tiger and The Dragon during the final Wizards Duel.
- Ace Attorney lampshades the Dragon/Tiger rivalry by having Phoenix (whose Japanese name, Ryuuichi, has part of its name meaning 'dragon') being impersonated by a guy named Furio Tigre who is the real killer, and of course Phoenix has to set him straight.
- Spyro: Year of the Dragon came out in 2000, the year of the dragon. It revolves around dragons being born every 12 years. This plot point was re-used in the Continuity Reboot The Legend of Spyro, but it isn't made clear how much time passes between each year of the dragon.
- Holy Beast Online Plays around with this. The six animal clans you get to choose from are based off of the Zodiac, but as the plot and other elements of the game reveal themselves, you learn that the developers decided to switch around some things, Dragons are associated with water and birds are associated with fire among some other things.
- Used in Order of the Stick as the Twelve Gods of the South, who rule over, among others, the Azurites.
- The story of Strings Of Fate (now offline) centred around the story of the Zodiac and the animal gods themselves, especially the Rat and his relationship with the Cat. The Dragon and the Tiger are also part of The Four Gods.
- In Eight Bit Theater, Fighter practices "Zodiackenshido", with his combat styles based on animals of the Eastern Zodiac.
- Jackie Chan Adventures featured the Talismans -- spirits of the Chinese Zodiac who were encapsuled via demonic magic. Each Talisman possessed a different power and granted it to the one holding it.
- In Legend of the Dragon the heroes all had Power Bands based on the Chinese Zodiac, and the evil Zodiac Master was trying to seize the power. The most powerful is, of course, the titular Golden Dragon, but close behind him is Biengal the Tiger Guardian.