Each of the 12 animals in the zodiac corresponds to a year in a repeating 12-year cycle that makes up the traditional East Asian lunar calendar. The association of these zodiac animals with the Chinese calendar first appeared in the third century B.C., and became firmly established by the first century.

In sequence, the 12 animals are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Each animal is believed to embody certain traits that are personified by the character of the people born in that year. This Lunar New Year, beginning on January 29, is the Year of the Rooster. Since the rooster is an early riser, people born in the year of the rooster are thought to be diligent and industrious.

Archaeological finds date the rooster's domestication to prehistoric times. The rooster is also one of the six animals (liuchu) recorded in the Chinese classics; the other five are the horse, ox, sheep, dog, and pig, each of which plays an essential role in the life of humans. According to Chinese legend, there is a heavenly rooster in the land of the immortals that lives in a peach tree on top of Taodu Mountain.

It crows when the sun casts its first rays on the tree, thus awakening the whole world. The rooster is also an auspicious figure, because its crowing brings out the sun and dispels the darkness. Consequently, roosters have been a popular motif in Chinese art since ancient times. A few choice examples from The Met collection are featured here.