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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Beasts are ‘Us’: The Merging of Man, Nature and Animal in Zodiac Systems

By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly Feature, February 2022

THE CRUCIAL position that animals have in human civilization is an intriguing one.

Taming animals for labour and transport or for food and company is a criterion of civilization, as is the worship or contempt, as the case may be, of chosen animals in certain cases. But our relationship to animals goes much further than that, and reveals a co-existence we cannot deny.

It stretches to the extent of humans attempting to describe ourselves in animal—and sometimes in beastly—terms and through animal characteristics. That is obvious in the zodiac systems that major civilizations constructed in order to postulate order where chaos, complexity and incomprehensibility are the apparent reality.

In modern psychology, we observe how human behaviours are prone to be understood time and again as “complexes”. That fact is deeply interesting and intimates to me that the ancient classification of human characteristics into psychosomatic complexes symbolised by an animal is not queer at all. Pseudo-science, we may rightly conclude, but nevertheless, it is not a meaningless endeavour.

This adoption of the imaginary essence of a carefully chosen animal to represent a human type may not be scientific in the modern sense, but it does express affection, intimacy and kinship across species… perhaps the same type of empathy we express when we endearingly call someone “Pet”.

Zodiacs are Never Simple

Take the example of the Chinese Zodiac (Shi’er Shengxiao). While the lavish Western Zodiac, which is largely Babylonian and Greek in origin and astrological in character, looks to the heavens regardless of the suggestion of creatures in the constellation names included in it, like Cancer, Capricorn, Scorpio, Taurus, Leo and Pisces, the Chinese prefer animals as nominal terms with which to organise and comprehend human character types. Except for the Dragon, all of them are real creatures; notably the Dragon is in a class of its own in Chinese cosmology and often also symbolises Nature itself, or at least Nature’s vitality.

And so, we have the sneaky Rat, the stubborn Ox, the irrepressible Tiger, the fluffy and fast Rabbit, the powerful Dragon, the imperceptible Snake, the stylish and swift Horse, the sure-footed Goat, the agile and social Monkey, the proud Cockerel, the trusty Dog and the comfortable Pig. (I simplify unforgivably here; the characteristics of each need a book to specify).

This assumption of beasts by man as depictive tools appears to me to reflect the latter’s own understanding of himself as being too complex to describe.

But the story does not end there. The ancient Chinese did realise that a series of twelve animals, each mathematically representing one twelfth of all mankind, does not really do justice to the innumerable forms that humans come in, not by a long shot.

And so, we see that in the complete cosmology of humans imagined by the ancient Chinese, there are not just twelve types of humans, but 60. Each of the 12

 animals do not traverse time and space alone; they do so in a cosmic firmament populated by the Five Elements (Wu Xing). These are also queued in an eternally definite order.

Five multiplied by Twelve is 60. And so, Chinese Zodiac time moves in a circle of 60 years, and each animal takes five shapes, determined by the element it emerges with. Thus, we have a Wood-Goat, a Fire-Goat, an Earth-Goat, a Metal-Goat and a Water-Goat, and not a singular element-impoverished Goat.

The Chinese New Year of 2022 has just ushered in the Wood-Tiger and not any other type of Tiger, and roared the Earth-influenced version of the Ox out the cosmic backdoor.

Interestingly then, we see that the Babylonian-Greek conflation of the Heavens and the Beasts to form twelve Zodiac signs is present in the Chinese system as well, except that the latter system went further, to generate a series of 60 human character types and fates for astrologers to fathom—and make a living from.

Now, why, in both the Chinese and the Middle Eastern cases, the Day of Birth is adopted to link a new-born to a Zodiac sign remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it was the most expedient thing to do, and perhaps only the privileged bothered to know exactly when and where they came into the world, and wished to define an exalted place for themselves in the cosmos.

There is more to the instincts that went into forming our many pseudo-sciences than we can understand. But we share them enough to be unable to disregard the beautiful and pleasing constructs that have ensued from them.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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