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Story of 12 animal guardians

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a rat, Michael Jackson was a dog. His little sister Janet is a horse and Beyonce is a rooster, as is her husband Jay-Z.

No, the “King of Pop” was not literally man’s best friend, but he is represented by the cuddly animal in “sibiji,” the 12 Chinese zodiac animals thought to represent worldly elements.

“Sibiji” -- or just jiji -- refers to the units allocated to various elements in the world, such as the year, lunar month, each day divided into 12 and 12 separate portions of the 360-degree bearing. Sibijisin, with the “sin” meaning god, is a Buddhist concept of there being 12 animal gods allocated to each of the sibiji to protect the land, with “sibi” meaning 12 and “ji” meaning land.

Painting of 12 Chinese zodiac animals (National Museum of Korea)
Painting of 12 Chinese zodiac animals (National Museum of Korea)

The 12 animal gods are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

Belief in the system in Korea predates the era of the Three Kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, and its influences can be found throughout their records, and even in some Silla structures that remain today.

According to the Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, published by the state-run Academy of Korean Studies, the Wonwonsaji Samcheungseoktap -- the temple Wonwonsa’s three-story stone pagoda -- is believed to be the first structure to have the sibijisin carved its foundation. The tower was built in the mid-8th century.

The most common way the belief has been applied in Koreans’ everyday life is in the animal signs designated to the birth year of each person. For example, this year marks that of the pig.

As the animal signs run in a 12-year cycle, you would have the same animal guardian as a person whose age is 12 years apart from you, 24 years apart, 36 years and so forth.

Take the example of the aforementioned Johnson. He was born in 1972 in the Year of the Rat, as was Lebron James, born 12 years later, and as will a baby born in 2020. More than a decade separates the superstar couple of Jay-Z and Beyonce, but they share the same animal guardian, as their birth years are 12 years apart.

Another way that it is still used today is in the form of fortune telling. In fact traditional astronomy and the art of geomancy pungsujjiri -- feng shui in Chinese -- also use sibiji, as it is a concept that runs deep in Korean tradition.

For example, the year of 2007 was not only a pig year, but also a “junghae” year, which is considered the luckiest of all pig years. While the 2019 “gihae” year is not as lucky as 2007, it is still a fairly good year, as the pig is associated with good luck or wealth in Korean tradition -- any dream related to a pig is considered a good dream.

Keep in mind, though, this is all according to the lunar calendar. The animal signs of the year do not change at the end of the year, but at the next year’s “ipchun,” which literally means the beginning of the spring. This point changes each year on the lunar calendar, but usually falls in early February. This means if you were born in January of 1985, you are still technically a “rat,” just like most people born in 1984.

Of course, this does not mean that you would share the same traits as your animal guardian: “rats” not only include the muscle-bound Johnson, but also the titanic basketball figure of Shaquille O’Neal, while perhaps the greatest basketball player of all-time Michael Jordan would be a fluffy little bunny. Usain Bolt, born in 1986, however does run like the ferocious tiger, which actually is his animal.

The concept is virtually a superstition in modern society but one that is widely accepted across the country, although not many people put serious faith in it. Still, ask any Korean and most of them would tell you what animal they are.

In honor of the tradition, the National Folk Museum of Korea is holding a special exhibition commemorating the Year of the Pig until March 1, featuring artifacts, paintings and events related to the porker sibiji.