There is a plethora of legends and folk tales on how the origin of the order of the Chinese zodiac. One popular tale is of the animals being invited to heaven to wish the Jade Emperor well on his birthday. The Cat loved to sleep but asked the Rat to wake him up on the day of the Jade Emperor’s birthday. The Rat did not do so but instead left the Cat to sleep away the big day while he sneaking up to Heaven. This is why the Cat is not in the zodiac and why the Cat and the Rat are mortal enemies now. The Rat got stuck at the river, which he could not cross. Along came the Ox, the Rat nimbly jumped onto its head and got into one of its 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, as he stepped in through the door, the Rat jumped out of the Ox’s ear and landed in front of them, thus becoming the first to arrive. The Jade Emperor rewarded the first 12 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.
There is another more exciting version.
A long long time ago, when the celestial stems and earthly branches had just come into being, the Jade Emperor picked 12 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 suggestion that he should be the first. The Rat made a bet with the others that if he could convince the humans he was the biggest, they would let him go first. 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, stuck out its chest and flexed its muscles, everyone exclaimed “look, what a huge rat!”. So the Rat got to be the first. Many people spoke out for the Ox, so second place was given to the Ox.
Next in the race came the Tiger, king of jungle and Dragon, king of the sea, and the ambitious Rabbit.. The Rooster supported the Dragon by lending its horns whilst the Monkey supported the Tiger by writing the character for king 王 on a plaque to be placed on the Tiger’s forehead (explains the pattern!). The Dragon soared to the clouds and mists but as on its way down the horns got stuck in the branches of a tree, meanwhile the Rabbit sped ahead of the Dragon and Tiger and got third place.
The Pig then egged on the Monkey who is agile on land and the Snake, who is agile in water. The Snake had twelve feet and was very clumsy on land. The Horse was kind and used its outer skin to make a slithery coat for the Snake, its mane to make patterns like dragon scales and the grease on its body to give the coat a nice sheen. The Goat, who was often annoyed at the Monkey for stepping on the grass he wanted to eat, refused to give the Monkey some of its coat to keep his bottom warm. So the Snake impressed people by zooming up trees and slithering across water, dancing like a dragon. The Monkey wasn’t doing too badly, swinging from tree to tree, but his bottom was so red that someone thought it had caught fire and raised alarm. The Monkey forgot what he was doing, covered his bottom with his hands and fell to the ground.
So the Snake and Horse were placed after the Dragon, followed by the Goat then the Monkey. The Dragon, displeased that the horns got in his way, never returned them to the Rooster. This is why during every sunrise the Rooster calls towards the sun to the Dragon to return its horns. Without its horns the Rooster went to the end of the line followed by the Dog, who played a prank on the Rabbit and cut off some of its tail. When he presented the results of the contest to the Jade Emperor, the Pig placed himself first. This is why the Jade Emperor put him in the last place.
Ancient Chinese scientists were great observers of nature. The 12 earthly branches represented different times of the day and was how the ancient Chinese counted time. One theory matches the behavior of the animals with the corresponding earthy branch. The hour of 子 “Zi3” , the first branch, is when the Rat is most active, during the hour of 丑 “Chou3”, the second branch, the Ox grows restless; the hour of 寅 “Yin2” is when the Tiger is the fiercest, during the hour of “卯3” Mao, when the moon shines down the Jade Rabbit watches over earth, the hour of 辰 “Chen2” is when according to legend, the dragons summoned the rain, during the time of 巳 “Si4”, the Snakes lie low in the grass, the time of 午 “Wu3” is the time of the Sun, when the force of Yang is strong and the Horse is a creature of the Yang; it is said that during the hour of 未”Wei4” grass grazed on by the Goat will grow back stronger, during the hour of 申 “Shen1” the Monkey wails, the hour of 酉 “You3” is when the Rooster returns to its nest, at the hour of 戌 “Xu” the Dog guards its owner’s home, and at the hour of 亥 “Hai4” is when Pig is in deep slumber.
It’s about time that I slumbered too, hope you enjoyed these bedtime stories. Good night.
First Published during Spring Festival 2013
Posted in Blog and tagged animals, china, Chinese, culture, folklore, new year, story, tradition, zodiac