Origin of 12 Chinese Zodiac Signs and 12 Braches

Where Do Chinese 12-Branch Symbols Come From?

Ancient China was an agricultural society. Most Chinese were farmers. They needed a calendar to tell them when to sow, to cultivate, to reap and to store the crop.

They learned the calendar simply to upright a post on the ground to trace the shadow of the post. From the shadow, they know the four directions, four seasons, the length of the year, Summer Solstice, Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox, Autumnal Equinox and so on.

More information about Yin Yang is at the page of Where does Yin Yang Symbol come from?

The most basic and important factor in the shadow is Yin Yang. The energy of Yang in the air is called Yang Chi and the energy of Yin in the air is called Yin Chi.

Daylight is getting longer and night time is getting shorter from Winter Solstice to Summer Solstice. That means Yang Chi begins to grow and Yin Chi begins to decline from Winter Solstice till Summer Solstice.

Night time is getting longer and daylight is getting shorter from Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice. That means Yang Chi begins to decline and Yin Chi begins to grow from Summer Solstice till Winter Solstice.

Yang Chi and Yin Chi are even on Vernal Equinox; Yin passes its duty to Yang at this time. Yang Chi and Yin Chi are also even on Autumnal Equinox; Yang leaves its duty to Yin at this time.

Based on the rise and fall relationship of Yin Yang, Chinese divided a year into three Yang periods and three Yin periods. The first Yang is cold. the second Yang is windy, and the third Yang is hot. The first Yin is fiery, the second Yin is wet, and the third Yin is dry. These concepts are applied to Chinese medicine later.

They used one to stand for the sky, which is Yang and used two to stand for the ground, which is Yin. Therefore Yang has its symbol and Yin has its symbol . Later, Chinese divided the year into six Yang periods and six Yin periods. 

Six Yang periods are , , , , and . The symbols tell that Yang Chi is rising. Six Yin periods are , , , , and . All these symbols are part of the I-Ching. The symbol, a series of six lines, is called Hexagram in I-Ching. When using  for calendar symbols, these hexagrams carry the weather information. 

Applying six Yin and Yang periods on the the life cycle of the plant, Chinese developed 12 Chinese pictographic characters as another counting system in the following. These 12 characters were then borrowed into the Chinese calendar. Chinese call them 12 Branches


Chinese Pictographic Characters



1 - Yang

(son) Yang Chi begins to grow inside the ground. The seed begins to absorb water and grow too.
2 - Yin

(twister) Yin Chi bends down into the ground. The spout of the seed twists out in the ground.
3 - Yang

(develop) Yang Chi grows up from the ground. The plant then completely comes out from the cold soil.
4 - Yin

(up) Sun rises. The plant begins to spout the first new leaves, mixing with Yang Chi and Yin Chi.
5 - Yang

(stretch) Yang Chi grows half way. The plant continues to shake, stretch out and group. 
6 - Yin

(done) Yin Chi is going to die and Yang Chi has full energy. The plant begins to grow faster and full with leaves. Animals begin to move south.
7 - Yang

(fight) Yang Chi totally overwhelms Yin Chi, but Yin Chi begins to reborn, grow back from the ground. The plant grows completely.
8 - Yin

(taste) Yang Chi begins to decrease in energy. The plant won't grow again, but the fruit on the Plant are getting tasty.
9 - Yang

(body) Yin Chi begins to take over the Yang Chi. The plant have completely formed their body and fruit is ready to be harvested.
10 - Yin

(harvest) The plant has succeed in its duty and is getting old. Yang Chi looks for a place to hide.
 11 - Yang
 (destroy) Yin Chi takes over Yang Chi. and the plant begins to wither. 
12 - Yin

 (seed) Yang Chi completely hides inside the seeds.

A Hexagram is a combination of two trigrams. There are total of eight trigrams. The total combination of hexagram is 64.

Square No. Trigram SymbolChinese I-Ching Five Element Group (Type)
1 White KanWaterWaterEastern
2 Black KunEarthEarthWestern
3 Green ChenThunderWoodEastern
4 Green SunWindWoodEastern
6 White ChienHeavenMetalWestern
7 Red TuiLakeMetalWestern
8 White KenMountainEarthWestern
9 Purple LiFireFireEastern

 Allen Tsai