Chinese Zodiac Animals and Chinese New Year

(Last Updated On: March 4, 2019)
The rat, of the Chinese Zodiac
The rat, of the Chinese Zodiac

Where did all the Chinese Zodiac Animals come from? Let’s find out. But first: Happy Chinese New Year (almost)! Kung Hei Fat Choi!

or, Gongxi Facai! or, Xin Nian Kuai Le!

The Year of the Ox will begin January 26. Chinese people, and the Chinese diaspora will celebrate Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, by returning home, eating lavish dinners, buying new clothes, and giving lucky money to children, parents, and unmarried friends.

Where does the Ox fit into this? What about the rest of the Chinese zodiac animals? As the Year of the Rat ends and the Year of the Ox begins do you wonder: Why is there a rat, a creature abhorred by most of civilization, in the Chinese zodiac? An ox? Hmmm…Let’s take a look.

Grab a cup of cocoa, put up your feet, and we’ll journey back to the days of yore. It started with a race, called by an immortal…

Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor (the Ruler of Heaven in the Taoist pantheon) held a race, calling all the animals to compete. The winners would be granted prestigious places in the Chinese zodiac. Many animals accepted the Emperor’s invitation, and as the racing commentators say, they were off!

The final obstacle in the race was a wide river. The ox, cat, and rat, the vanguard, arrived on the river bank. The cat and rat knew they couldn’t cross the river, they were the worst swimmers in the animal world.  They jumped on the back of the ox as he waded across. The ox, being a lovable lug (and somewhat naïve) agreed.

A traditional Chinese cat.
A traditional Chinese cat.

The cat and rat had a long-standing rivalry. The rat started to worry as they crossed the river on their bovine conveyance. He didn’t want to lose to his long time rival. In a fit of competitiveness, the rat pushed the cat off the ox, and into the river. The cat was swept away. (This explains two things: Why cats hate water, and why cats hate rats/mice. The cat never forgave the rat, and all cats still bear a grudge.)

The rat leapt off the ox as he struggled up the river bank, and finished the race. The Jade Emperor named him the first animal of the Chinese zodiac. The ox, a lovable lummox, finished second, and was granted second place in the zodiac.

Next, the tiger crossed the finish line. He apologized to the Jade Emperor. The current had been strong, and it was only his brute strength that allowed him to finish. Mr. Tiger was named the third animal.

A wet rabbit was fourth to cross the finish line. He thought he would win the race, he told the green God, but had fallen in the river while jumping from stone to stone. A piece of wood had saved him from drowning, and a gust of wind had brought him to shore.

Next: A Dragon. The Jade Emperor was mystified. How could a powerful flying creature finish fifth? He could fly across the river. The dragon explained that he had to stop along the way to make rain for a village in need. As he approached the finish line he spotted a rabbit in the river, clinging to a piece of wood. He helped the struggling rabbit to shore with his mighty breath. The Emperor was happy with the dragon’s benevolence, and he was named the fifth animal in the Chinese zodiac.

A horse arrived next, in a lather from his charging leap across the river. As he neared the finish line the snake, who had covertly hitched a ride on the horse’s leg, uncoiled. The horse, frightened by the serpent, reared and backed away. The snake crossed the finish line, the sixth animal. The horse, after recovering his wits, was the seventh animal to finish and be added to the zodiac.

A ram, a monkey and a rooster arrived at the far bank of the river. They couldn’t think of a way to get across. The rooster spotted a raft hidden along the river bank, and with the help of the monkey and the ram, cleared it of weeds and sailed across the river. The Jade Emperor was happy with the animals’ team work and named the ram the eighth animal, the monkey the ninth, and the rooster the tenth, in the zodiac cycle.

The dog of the Chinese Zodiac
The dog of the Chinese Zodiac

Next came a wet dog (probably smelling like a typical wet dog, that odor being a constant since the beginning of time). He needed a bath, he explained to the Jade Emperor, and the river was the perfect opportunity to get clean. The clean canine was named the eleventh animal in the cycle.

The menagerie waited. And waited. And waited.

The Jade Emperor was about to call an end to the race and proceed with the eleven animals he had. The ensemble heard a shuffle and an oink. A pig crossed the finish line. He apologized. During the race he had become hungry and stopped to eat. After his meal he had fallen asleep.  Upon waking he finished the race. The pig was named the twelfth and last Chinese zodiac animal.

The cat, having struggled from the river after the rat’s skullduggery, finally arrived, too late to be included. He swore eternal revenge on the rat (and all rats) that had queered his chance to become part of the Chinese zodiac.

… and they lived happily ever after.

Of course, as with any myth, there is more than one story. The above tale is told with the Buddha substituted for the Jade Emperor. In an alternate version the Buddha called all the animals on his last day on earth, to say goodbye. Only twelve animals came, and he named a year after each of them.

In another version there is no race. The rat is given the task of inviting all the animasl to a banquet held by the Jade Emperor. The rat, given his long-standing feud with the cat, told the cat to arrive a day after the dinner. The cat, being tricked, swore revenge through the ages on rats.

Stories and fables: Behind every Chinese holiday is a fascinating myth to explain the festivities. Chinese Lunar New Year stories are no different those of Mid-Autumn Festival or the Dragon Boat Festival.

As you celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Ox keep in mind how the dim-witted creature, number two in the Chinese Zodiac, helped the Rat cross the finish line.

Happy Chinese New Year, almost. Kung Hei Fat Choi!

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6 thoughts on “Chinese Zodiac Animals and Chinese New Year

  1. He’ a pig. But not in a bad way. He’s a tiger-pig which is … way better. Sort of a hybrid monster with gleaming fur that sort of tinges pink.

    Thank you for the story. I’m glad I’m not the year of the rat.

    amuirin´s last blog post..Olly Olly Oxen Free

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