The animals in the Chinese Zodiac are fabled to have held a race across a river for a place among the signs. Rat used his clever ways to be the first to get across (often at the expense of others), and is the first animal in the Zodiac. The other eleven followed in succession. Each Zodiac sign corresponds to a calendar year, and the cycle repeats every twelve years. All the animals have specific characteristics associated with them, and the people are thought to assume the qualities of the animals into which year they are born.
I don't really believe that my fortune of the present and future is based on whatever Chinese or Western astrological sign occurred in the year I was born. Of course, that did not stop people from asking me questions about Chinese Zodiac or about Asian cultures as if I was the "official representative". At a former workplace, a manager just came back from lunch at a local Chinese buffet and wanted to know more about the astrological signs of the twelve animals. I politely provided a brief explanation that the Dragon is the most favorable animal. Families (especially in China) would plan their pregnancies so that the child would be born in the year of the Dragon.