Explainer: The Story Behind the Year of the Monkey

By Cathy Wu, February 10, 2016

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The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.

The Chinese zodiac monkey is similar to Leo in western philosophy — both enjoy being treated like kings.

Legend has it that when the tiger became king of the beasts, all the animals in the mountains shunned him, causing him to feel lonely. At the time, the monkey was the tiger’s neighbor and the two got along well. While the tiger was away, the monkey acted on his behalf and governed the other beasts. Such was the origin of the Chinese idiom, “When the tiger is away from the mountain, the monkey becomes the king.”

One day, the tiger got caught in a net set up by hunters. Despite all his struggles, he could not escape. Luckily, the monkey came to his rescue. The monkey climbed the tree, untied the knot and saved the tiger. Following their escape from the woods, the tiger told the monkey he would repay him one day for his brave efforts. After the incident, the two became even tighter.

Many years later, the Jade Emperor was picking 12 animals as zodiac gods. As king of beasts, the tiger was naturally chosen. The monkey also wanted to be selected and asked the tiger to put in the good word for him. As the tiger owed the monkey for saving him, the tiger tried his best to persuade the Jade Emperor by gushing over the monkey’s cleverness. Though the Emperor was not entirely pleased with the nomination, the monkey eventually became a horoscope animal.

Ironically, the tiger and the monkey parted ways after this. Thus, the idiom took on a sarcastic implication.

Monkey Birth Years

1908, 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016

What are they like?

Quick-witted, intelligent, mischievous, curious, clever, sly, restless, inquisitive, creative.

Monkeys make excellent...

Professional athletes, lawyer, actors, writers, reporters, diplomats, detectives, stock brokers.

Most compatible with...

Oxes and Rabbits

Mortal enemies with...

Tigers and Pigs

Monkey idioms

For all that talk of monkeys being clever, they're often portrayed as buffoons in many monkey-related idioms. Here are a few examples:

沐猴而冠: “A monkey wearing a hat (does not make it a man).” Meaning: A worthless person in an imposing attire.

杀鸡儆猴: “Kill the chicken in front of the monkey.” Meaning: To make an example of somebody through punishment.

山中无老虎,猴子称大王: “When the tiger is away from the mountain, the monkey becomes the king.” Meaning: Because of lack of talents, inferior people get to play leading parts.

尖嘴猴腮: “Have a sticking out mouth and monkey-like cheeks.” Meaning: The man is ferret-faced and thin in an ugly way.

Fellow Monkey Kings and Queens

Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Dickens, George Gordon Byron, Yao Ming, Celine Dion, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Christina Aguilera, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Truman, Alice Walker, Michael Douglas, Owen Wilson, Daniel Craig, Mick Jagger, Julius Caesar, Bette Davis, Annie Oakley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betsy Ross, Gisele Bundchen, Kim Cattrell, Nick Carter, Patricia Arquette, Alyson Stoner, Christina Ricci, Cole Sprouse, Demi Lovato, Dylan Sprouse, Miley Cyrus, Mitchell Musso, Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez, Empress Wu Zetian of China’s Tang Dynasty (618 - 907)

RELATED: EXPLAINER: Everything you need to know about the Year of the Sheep

[Image via NDTV]

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