For the western mind, it is unthinkable that a person is associated with an animal. In Chinese culture, by birth one could be a dog, a pig, a monkey, or a snake. These are derogatory terms to be associated with a human being. In the Chinese way of life and thinking, these very animals symbolise salient characteristics. These animal characteristics are part of human nature too. In Chinese martial arts, there are many forms of fighting; fighting like a tiger, a dog on river barges, a snake. The Chinese, in their ancient wisdom, understood the importance of the behaviour and characteristics of animals and used it to benefit them in their daily lives.

It was said that Premier Zhou Enlai was once having a meal with his European friends. A person in this group passed an impolite comment when he was drunk. “You Chinese carry the signs of pigs, dogs, and mice at birth. I can’t understand what’s going on in the mind of your ancestors?”

At that point, the distinguished group of friends started to laugh. They started to toast each other boisterously.

The cultured and serene atmosphere was broken.

Some people believe that when someone insults your ancestors, even if you don’t have a response to it, the least you could do is to retort calmly. For a while, not a single word was uttered. It was probably because they have not come across this situation before, especially in the presence of such a distinguished host. Then, Premier Zhou Enlai stood up and spoke to everybody in a calm and peaceful way.

“The Chinese ancestors were very wise. They arranged the twelve zodiac signs in pairs; six pairs in a cycle. In this way, they expressed their hopes and wishes for the generation that came after them.” The room became silent. There were some sceptical looks among the audience.

Premier Chou En-lai continued: “The first pair of animals is the rat and ox.

“The rat represents wisdom and the ox represents diligence. Wisdom and diligence must operate in harmony. If there is wisdom but no diligence in applying it, it’s foolishness. On the other hand, if there is diligence but no wisdom, it’s an act of folly.

“That’s why wisdom and diligence must go hand in hand. This is our ancestor’s first wish for us. The first pair of animal also represents the most important hope.

“The second pair is the tiger and rabbit.

“The tiger represents courage and the rabbit represents carefulness. These two qualities must work closely together. In that way, it can have a better chance to achieve success. Without carefulness, courage becomes recklessness. Similarly, without courage, carefulness becomes cowardice. This pair of qualities is very important. That’s why it is the second pair.”

Premier Zhou Enlai looked at the audience and then he added: “Therefore, when we demonstrate our carefulness, please do not think that we do not have the courage to fight for social justice.

“In truth, what our ancestors are pursuing is wisdom through integrity, harmony, and balance. It’s never about a single hope or task.”

When he saw that the audience was deep in thought, Premier Zhou Enlai continued: “The third pair is the dragon and snake.

“They represent strength and flexibility. Strength without flexibility becomes brittle. Without strength, flexibility becomes meaningless. That’s why strength with flexibility is an important lesson from our ancestors that has lasted through time.

“The next pair is the horse and goat/sheep.

“The horse represents the ability to gallop to success. The goat represents the ability to be considerate and have compassion. If a person only looks after himself as he pursues his goal and with no consideration for others, he will face obstacles from the people around him. Finally, he may not even be successful. However, if a person only looks after others and seek only to be amiable, he will not have a sense of direction. His goal will eventually be lost.

“That’s why the spirit of the horse and virtues of the goat must be applied in harmony with each other. This is our ancestors’ fourth wish for us.

“The next pair is the monkey and the chicken.

“The monkey represents agility. As for chicken, as there were no clocks in the days of old, it is needed to wake humans to start a new day. The chicken represents stability. The qualities of agility and stability must be tightly coupled together.

“If you have agility but no stability, your best plan will not come to pass. However, if you focused on having stability and refuse to change, you will not have a better future. When the two qualities are in harmony, on one side, there will be stability in terms of having, for example, effective system and collaboration.

“On the other side, there will be a release of unrelenting creativity and innovation to achieve progress. When these two qualities operate in synergy, it is one of the basic imperatives to achieve success.

“Lastly, we have the dog and pig.

“The dog represents loyalty while the pig represents good nature. If a person is loyal but does not have a good nature, he will be blindly following others. On the other hand, if he has a good nature but does not have loyalty, he will have no people and principles to guide him.

“That’s why whether its loyalty to a country, loyalty to a team, or loyalty to an ideal, you need to ensure that good nature is tightly coupled with and working alongside with it. In that way, you can have a deep-seated sense of loyalty that comes from the heart.

“This is why the Chinese believe that the outer core must be in alignment with the inner core. At the inner core, we must have a pure heart that subscribes to high moral values. We must seek to live with ethos and positive principles. We must live up to our words and not do anything that will harm others.

“At the external core, we must be knowledgeable about the ways of the world. We must be wise in managing affairs around us. We need to focus on what matters in life and not be influenced by evil.

“We need to live with integrity and in harmony with others and the environment. We must not have any form of prejudice or seek to discriminate against anyone.”

At the end of his speech, there was complete silence.

This is ancient wisdom passed down from Lao Tzu and Confucius and dozens of great thinkers from China. To understand the Chinese, even something as simple as a zodiac sign, one must understand the Chinese way of thinking.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sun Lai Yung’s article was published in on 16 February 2018.

#RobrenReview: 9 | 10
Published: 2.2.2022.

The Robren Show: Meaning of Chinese Culture


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12 Chinese Zodiac Animal Pairing Significance by Zhou Enlai