There are many versions and stories popular in different regions of China about the legend of the Chinese Zodiac. Why were there twelve animals in the zodiac calendar and where did the order come from? How did the rat get first place and the dragon come in fifth? Consensus seemed to say the rat cheated which, according to at least three of the versions, he totally did! But, then again, the following versions are only six out of probably thousands, so I may be a tad unfair to the little beast.
- The 12 animals came to bid Buddha farewell.
Buddha summoned all of the animals of the earth to come before him before his departure from this earth, but only 12 animals actually came to say goodbye. To reward them, named a year after each of them. The years were given to them in the order they had arrived.
- The rat forgot to wake the cat up and ditched the ox
The Jade Emperor (The Emperor in Heaven in Chinese folklore) ordered that animals would be designated as calendar signs and the twelve that arrived first would be selected. The cat and the rat were good friends, so when they heard this news, the cat asked the rat to wake him up very early the next day so they could get in early together. The rat said yes. So the two happy little animals slept excitedly that night.
But then, in the morning, the rat was too excited to remember his promise and went straight to the gathering place. On the way, he saw the tiger, ox, horse, and other bigger animals that ran much faster. To catch up with him the rat thought of an idea. “That ox fellow is pretty quick for a big guy!” So he decided to trick the ox. The rat told the ox to let him jump onto his back so that he could sing to him and make their journey to the gathering place more pleasant. The ox agreed. Soon without knowing, the ox was walking to the signing post, forgetting the rat on his back. When they reached there, the rat jumped off and claimed first place. The ox and the rest followed.
- The rat forgot to sign in on behalf of the cat and got into the elephant’s trunk.
In this story, it was the Yellow Emperor who wanted to select twelve guards The rat told the cat that he’d get there early to sign up for the both of them. But then rat completely forgot., or maybe he intentionally didn’t do it for the cat. Either way, the attending animals were requested to have a swimming race and the elephant also participated. The rat didn’t fancy getting drowned, so he decided to hitch a ride on the big elephant. Since the elephant was too big and round, the mouse could only got into its trunk. The elephant ran away in fright, and centuries later elephants are still afraid of rats.
- The rat didn’t cheat, but he had the correct amount of toes.
Many famous scholars in history had their own interpretations about this. Hong Xun from the Song dynasty based his theory on the Yin and Yang Theory. Among the twelve animals – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig – rat, tiger, dragon, monkey and dog have five toes. Five is an odd number which is thought to be in yang side (or positive). Horse has one toe, also an odd number. Others animals have toes of even numbers which are thought to be yin, negative. Snake has no toe but its tongue has two tips in even number. Ying and yang animal signs were interlaced. The rat’s forepaws have four toes and hindpaws have five toes, with both odd and even numbers. For such a special creature among the twelve animals, he won the first place.
- The rat was the hero who started the world.
In the Chinese mythology about the origin of world, the universe was dark and shaped like an egg before the earth and heaven were separated. It was the rat that bit a crack and let the air in. He was the hero who started the world.
- The animals arrived according to their natures.
The cat and the rat were the worst swimmers in the animal kingdom. Although they were poor swimmers, they were both quite intelligent. To get to the meeting called by the Jade Emperor, they had to cross a river to reach the meeting place. The Jade Emperor had also decreed that the years on the calendar would be named for each animal in the order they arrived to the meeting. They decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hop on the back of the ox, who agreed to carry them both across. Midway across the river, the rat pushed the cat into the water. Then as ox neared the other side of the river, the rat jumped ahead and reached the shore first. So he claimed first place.
The ox followed closely behind him and earned second place. Then came the tiger, panting, explaining to the Jade Emperor how difficult it was to cross the river with the heavy currents pushing it downstream all the time. But he made it to the shore and was named the 3rd animal in the cycle.
Suddenly, the rabbit arrived. He jumped from one stone to another nimbly. Halfway through, he almost lost the race, but he grabbed hold of a floating log that later washed him to shore. He became the 4th animal in the Zodiac cycle. In 5th place was the dragon. He had to stop and make rain to help all the people and creatures of the earth, and therefore was held back. Then, on his way to the finish, he saw a little helpless rabbit clinging onto a log so he did a good deed and gave a puff of breath to the poor creature so that it could land on the shore.
Then the horse appeared. Hidden on the horse’s hoof was the snake, whose sudden appearance gave the horse a fright, making it fall back and the snake slithered into the 6th spot, while the horse placed 7th.
Not long after that, the goat, the monkey and the rooster came to the shore. These three creatures helped each other to get to where they are. The rooster spotted a raft, and took the other two animals with it. Together, the goat and the monkey cleared the weeds and pulled until the raft got to the shore. Because of their combined efforts, the emperor named the goat as the 8th creature, the monkey as the 9th, and the rooster the 10th.
The dog was the 11th animal. He was supposed to be the best swimmer, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to play a little longer in the river. Just as the Jade Emperor was about to call it a day, a little pig arrived. The pig got hungry during the race, promptly stopped for a feast and then fell asleep. After the nap, he continued the race and was named the 12th animal of the zodiac cycle. The cat drowned and never made it in the zodiac. Centuries later, cats always chase rats, to get back at them for tricking them out of their chance of being a zodiac.