This post is dedicated to Christa, who always felt sorry for the cat.Anyone who has ever been interested in astrology or gone out for Chinese food is undoubtedly familiar with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. In the West, the Chinese zodiac is largely seen as merely a superstitious novelty, but in China is taken with utter seriousness. Along with a myriad of other astrological signs and symbols the Chinese zodiac can play apart in deciding everything from a person’s job, where they live, and on what day they should have their funeral. Another thing which many Western may not know is that the twelve animals on the zodiac wheel were not simply picked at random but rather earned their place as guides of mankind.
According to Buddhist legend the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac are the twelve creatures that appeared at the Buddha’s funeral to wish the great teacher farewell. As a reward for their piousness the twelve were made into symbols to help guide mankind in the Buddha’s absence. However, while this tale maybe sweet it is undoubtedly a product of a post-Buddhist China in an attempt to synchronize the ancient zodiac of China with the new religion of Buddhism.
An older and more authentic legend, tells a different and more complex story of how the twelve earned their place amongst the zodiac. In this tale the Yellow Emperor of Heaven devised the zodiac as a compass to guide mankind through life. When it came time for the Yellow Emperor to choose twelve animals to represent the twelve months of the year he decided that the only fair way to pick who should be placed amongst the zodiac was to have a great race. The first twelve creatures to cross the finish line would be the winners.
The main competitors for the prize were the; Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig and Cat. Naturally, most people have never heard of the cat before because (if you look above) he is not on the zodiac wheel. The reason for this is because he was tricked out of his place. The night before the race, cat and rat made a deal that when the one awoke in the morning he would rouse the other so that they could start the race together. Later on that same night, ox awoke and knowing that he was the slowest of the thirteen competitors decided to cheat a little and get a head start. As ox was setting off he woke rat who realized that with his short legs he would never be able to keep up with the bigger animals and decided to jump onto ox’s back and hitch a ride, completely forgetting about cat.
When the sun rose, the other animals saw that ox and rat had already gone and quickly began to rush after them. Cat was particularly angry because rat had broken his promise to him, and it is because of this that cats and rats, to this day, do not get along. As the other animals raced along they soon came to a raging river on the other side of which was the finish line.
Ox, with his great size and strength, had to no problem crossing the river but just as he was about to cross the finish line, rat jumped off his back and in front of him, which is why rat is the first of the twelve zodiac signs and ox is second. Following rat and ox was tiger and then hare and dragon. Hare managed to cross the river by jumping from rock to rock, but at one point slipped and fell in. Dragon could have passed hare, but felt sorry for him and helped him out of the river, which is why dragon is fifth and hare is forth.
Next came snake and horse and once again some trickery was involved. Snake, like rat, had decided to hitch a ride on horse without horse realizing it and when horse was just about to cross the finish line snake slipped off the mare given her such a fright that she stopped dead in her tracks allowing snake to place sixth and giving horse seventh. Sheep, monkey and rooster arrived eighth, ninth and tenth because they had helped each other build a raft to make it across the river. Dog placed eleventh because he had stopped to take a bath and pig was twelfth because he had stopped for dinner. Unfortunately, the poor cat did not make it into the zodiac because he was last, due in part to rat not waking him up and on account that cats are poor swimmers.
Source: Year of the Dragon: Legends & Lore (2000), by Nigel Suckling