An Interpretation of How the Chinese Zodiac Came About

In recognition of the beginning of the Lunar New Year, which took place last Thursday, and in regards to the article published last week, the topic of zodiacs was addressed without much detail. There are many legends and stories regarding the Chinese Zodiac, each with a different version and explanation of why the zodiac was set up the way it is, and here is one myth.

One popular legend involves a race, also known as the race of the Zodiacs. The story takes place in sixth century B.C. and also offers an explanation of why the cat is a rat’s most hated enemy.

The Jade Emperor decided to hold a race for all the animals in the world but only a few arrived to take part. The animals were to race across a swift current river. The cat and the rat were very good friends, but because they were both unskilled swimmers, the two asked the ox if they could ride on his head, so that the three may cross the terrible river together. The ox, naïve and kindhearted, agreed and the three began to cross.

Along the way, the rat decided that, as good a friend as the cat and he were, winning was more important. Taking action, he quickly pushed the cat off of the ox’s back and the cat fell into the river. Unable to swim, the poor cat was left in the waters, unable to reach the finish line. The cat, known as the tiger, never forgave the rat for his betrayal.

After the rat’s betrayal of his friend, the ox neared the finish line and the rat quickly jumped from the ox’s head and landed onto shore, finishing first, with the ox reaching the goal second. Coming in third, the tiger was able to cross the unforgiving currents with his raw strength and power. The fourth animal, the rabbit, was able to cross by jumping from stone to stone, finally drifting to shore on a log.

The dragon, the fifth animal, had the ability to finish the race in first place, but he explained to the emperor that it was because he had to stop to make rain for the life on earth. The dragon also had to stop along the way to help a small rabbit, stuck on a log, float to shore. As time passed, the next animal to near the goal was the horse, but, a slimy and sneaky snake, hiding on the horse’s hoof spooked the galloping creature. Because of this, the snake was able to become the sixth animal and the horse the seventh.

As the race went on, the sheep, monkey, and chicken were each able to cross the mighty river by helping each other, thus making them the eighth, ninth, and tenth animals, respectively. The last two animals, the dog and the pig, each had an explanation to why they were so late.

The dog, on his way over, decided to take his time with a bath, using the fresh water. The pig however, simply got hungry and stopped to eat. He then became tired and decided to take a nap. It wasn’t only until after he had awoken from his nap did he continue the race, finally finishing as the last and twelfth animal on the Chinese Zodiac.

Though there is no definite interpretation behind how the zodiac is arranged, it is important to understand the influence it has on the Chinese traditions for the new year.


This article was written by Angie Yeh. It was published in the February 13, 2007 issue of the Temple City Voice.


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