With the Lunar New Year fast approaching, it is time to say goodbye to the Year of the Rabbit and hello to the Year of the Dragon.
Most people will have at the very least a passing familiarity with the Chinese Zodiac – a twelve-year cycle in which each year relates to a corresponding animal. These twelve animals are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Those born under a specific sign are said to have certain characteristics, for example, rats being generous, dogs being loyal and dragons being adventurous.
This Zodiac has been used for over 2000 years, and there is one famous story about how it came to be and, specifically, how each animal came to take their place in the order of the Zodiac.
Once, the Jade Emperor – the ruler of heaven - decided that there should be a way to measure time. On his birthday he called for a race between the animals, a year would be named for each of them in the order that they had finished the race. The animals would have to race across a mighty river with strong currents. When the day came the animals lined up along the opposite bank in anticipation, waiting for the race to start.
The rat worried that it would be unable to cross the great river as it was not a strong swimmer. It asked the ox if they would be willing to carry it across. The ox was happy to agree, and the rat climbed onto its back. The ox swam swiftly across the river and, once they reached the other side, the rat jumped off the ox’s back. It reached the finish line just before the ox did, coming in first. The ox took second place.
The tiger finished third. Though it was strong, it had struggled greatly with the currents and been thrown off course. By the time it managed to finish the race it was exhausted.
In fourth place came the bedraggled rabbit. Though swift of foot, the rabbit had struggled in the river. Unable to swim, the rabbit had attempted to cross by leaping on stones, only to run out halfway across the river. It had leapt onto a floating log, but the currents had been swift and dangerous and almost swept it away. Luckily, a strong wind had sent the log drifting to shore and allowed the rabbit to finish the race.
In fifth place came the dragon. The emperor was startled that the dragon should place so low, but the dragon explained that during the race it had come across people in need of help. It had found a village in dire straits, drought causing their crops to whither. It had stopped long enough to bring rain and relief to the suffering villagers. It had then continued on with the race, only to see the poor rabbit struggling in the currents on a flimsy log. Taking pity, the dragon had sent a puff of air to carry the rabbit safely to shore.
The horse, by all accounts, seemed to be the animal that would place sixth as it came racing towards the finish line – but before it could cross, the snake revealed itself. The sneaky creature had wrapped itself around the horse’s leg. With the end in sight, it revealed itself and slipped free. The horse was startled and leapt back in surprise, allowing the snake to claim sixth place, while the horse was relegated to seventh.
The next three animals reached the finish line at almost the same time. The monkey, the sheep, and the rooster had known they would struggle to cross the river but managed the task by working together. The rooster discovered a raft that they could use to cross. The sheep (sometimes referred to instead as a goat) had eaten the weeds to clear the way, and the monkey had piloted the raft across the river. The sheep finished eighth, the monkey ninth and the rooster tenth.
In eleventh place came the dog. The Jade Emperor was surprised that the dog had come so lowly in the rankings. The dog was a strong swimmer, after all. The dog admitted that it had been distracted by the cool water and spent a long time splashing around and playing in the shallows before it even attempted to cross – allowing the other animals to overtake.
In last place, twelfth of all the animals, came the pig. When the Jade Emperor asked the pig why it came twelfth, the pig informed the emperor that it had grown hungry and stopped for a snack. After eating, the pig had been sleepy and taken a nap. Finally, the pig had woken and returned to the race, claiming the last spot in the Zodiac.
There is one animal, however, who did not finish the race. The unlucky cat. Though there are many stories on why, precisely the cat failed to finish the race, most of them serve to explain the long enmity of rats and cats, who had once been the closest of friends. In one, the rat simply failed to tell the cat about the race, and in another the rat was supposed to wake the cat he morning of the race and forgot. In another version, however, the rat takes a more active role in ensuring that the cat does not become a member of the Zodiac. In this version, the cat and the rat had come up with the idea to hitch a ride on the ox together. Once on the ox’s back, however, the rat had grown worried. Surely the ox would swim faster with just the one passenger, and besides, what if the cat what quicker when they reached the other side – the rat would lose its chance to win! Determined, the rat pushed the cat off the ox’s back, and its friend was swept away by the currents, never to finish the race or be part of the Zodiac. Ever since then, cats have hated rats and will kill them whenever they see them.
This coming year, 2024, will be the year of the fifth place finisher, the Year of the Dragon. Dragons are traditionally seen as auspicious creatures so hopefully we will all see a little luck coming our way in the coming months – those wanted a particular windfall of fortune should consider wearing gold, the lucky colour associated with the Dragon Zodiac sign!