There is a plethora of legends and folk tales on the origins of the order of the Chinese zodiac, the shi’er shengxiao. One popular tale is that of the animals being invited to heaven to wish the Jade Emperor well on his birthday. The animals raced to get there.
The Cat loved to sleep but asked the Rat to wake the Cat up on the day of the Jade Emperor’s birthday. The Rat did not, but instead left the Cat to sleep away the big day, while the Rat itself sneaked up to Heaven. This is why the Cat is not in the zodiac and why the Cat and the Rat are mortal enemies.
The Rat came to a river and could not cross it. Along came the Ox, the Rat nimbly jumped onto the Ox’s head and got into one of Ox’s ears. The Ox was kind and didn’t mind, but when they got to the other side of the river, the Rat showed no intention of getting down. By dusk the Ox had reached the Jade Emperor’s palace, and was just about to step through the door, when the Rat jumped out of the Ox’s ear and landed in front of them, becoming the first to arrive.
The Jade Emperor rewarded the first twelve animals to arrive by granting them each one year out of twelve in the cycle, in the order of their arrival. The Rat was the first, then the Ox, followed by the Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster and Pig.
Another version of the zodiac legend goes like this. A long long time ago, when the celestial stems and earthly branches had just come into being, the Jade Emperor picked twelve out of a huge gathering of animals to participate in a contest to decide the order in which he would bestow on them the earthly branches.
The Pig volunteered to be the umpire. Everyone waved away the Rat’s claim to be the champion. The Rat made a bet with the others that if the humans could be convinced that the Rat was the largest beast, they would let the Rat win the contest. So they all went into the crowd together.
People saw the Ox and remarked, “what a strong ox!” People saw the Goat and remarked “what a fat goat!” Then, the Rat suddenly jumped onto the Ox’s back, chest stuck out and muscles flexed. And everyone exclaimed, “look, what a huge rat!”. So the Rat got to be the champion in the contest. Many people spoke up for the Ox, so second place was given to the Ox.
Next came the Tiger, king of the jungle. The Monkey cheered the Tiger on by writing the character for king 王 on the Tiger’s forehead. The Tiger came third. The Dragon, king of the sea, soared to the clouds and mists but on the way down, the Dragon’s horns got stuck in the branches of a tree. So the ambitious Rabbit took this opportunity to impress the crowd and won fourth place.The Rooster came to the Dragon’s aid by lending the dragon horns.
The Snake impressed people by zooming up trees and slithering across water, dancing like a dragon.The Snake had twelve feet and was very clumsy on land. The Horse was kind and made a slithery coat for the Snake out of skin, weaving on it patterns like the Dragon’s scales out of mane.
The Goat, who was often annoyed at the Monkey for stepping over the grass, refused to give the Monkey something to keep his bottom warm. The Monkey wasn’t doing too badly at all, swinging from tree to tree, but with a bottom so red that someone thought it had caught fire. The Monkey got distracted trying to cover it, and fell to the ground.
The Dragon never returned the borrowed horns to the Rooster. This is why, during every sunrise, the Rooster calls towards the sun, to the Dragon. Without horns, the Rooster could only impress with colourful feathers. The Dog’s popularity plummeted after playing a prank on the Rabbit’s tail.
When presenting the results of the contest to the Jade Emperor, the Boar claimed to be the champion, which impressed the Jade Emperor the least, and ended up in last place.
First Published during Spring Festival 2013
Posted in Culture and tagged animals, china, Chinese, culture, folklore, new year, story, tradition, zodiac