Folk Beliefs
Myths
Narrative

Chinese Zodiac Origin Story

So I understand that you’re going to tell me a story?

“Yeah, I got you a story. This story’s about, umm… why the Chinese Zodiac’s in the order it is. So you know the Chinese Zodiac, right? It’s like, 12 years, it’s a 12 year cycle, there’s 12 animals, and it’s, umm… Rat, uhh, Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat… Chicken… Wait, Monkey, Chicken…? I think it’s Monkey, Chicken… It’s either Monkey Chicken or Chicken Monkey, [laughs] and then it’s Dog and Pig [laughs].”

We’re off to a great start!

“It’s Monkey, Chicken. It’s Monkey, Chicken. Cuz’ I have to translate from Chinese to… yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay so the order that… so then, once upon a time, back in the old days, some god was like, ‘hey, we, uhh, there’s a lot of animals-‘ ”

Do you remember this in Chinese?

“Do you want me to say it all in Chinese?”

Yeah, if you can.

“You want me to, like, say this story, well I mean it’s, like, it’s a folk story, it’s just a story… Saying it in Chinese would be harder for me, because I remember the contents of the story, and my Chinese is worse than my English.”

Okay, then we’ll go on in English.

“Yeah.”

Who’d you learn it from? Let’s start there.

“Probably my grandma? Or my mom or dad? This was told to me when I was really young.

It was a race, the gods were deciding which 12 animals to deify, kind of, or like make into a calendar, or something, some sort of race. So it, so… yeah, so something was happening, but they were like, ‘Hey, alert all the animals, we’re gonna have a race to determine who’s the dankest- Oh, I’m sorry, who’s gonna be deified, who’s gonna be chosen, right- [laughs] Asian-American…

But yeah, so then, they told the rat to go alert everyone. So the rat was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’

And the rat does go and tells everyone, but he tells everyone that the race starts a little bit later than it actually did, and then… the rat also specifically does not go to the cat, because the rat hates the cat.

So then, umm, then the day of the race comes, the rat’s there on time, and a few are early, or the ones that happen to be nearby, so then, umm, the race starts, and then the animals start running, and then some of them show up late, and some of them are on time. And then, umm, so you think, oh, it’s a race, how the heck is the rat first place then?

Well, the rat’s real smart. So he told the ox to show up on time, because the ox is a real strong, dependable guy, and the rat was like, ‘I’ll navigate for you, and you run, and together, we’ll be a great team.’

So the rat sits on the ox’s back, and he navigates, and they get a head start and ox is a strong, sturdy partner, and then they get to the end first, and right before the finish line,  the rat jumps off the ox’s head to be first place.

And that’s why the rat has this reputation of being like, really shrewd, and somewhat manipulative, and the ox is sturdy, solid.

The reason the tiger came in after, and so is the rabbit, but in the middle of the race. There’s also a river, so like, those animals weren’t as adept, so the ox could walk straight through no problem, because he didn’t mind it as much, and everyone else starts trickling in.

And normally the dragon would be like, number one, even more so than the ox, but uhh… the dragon and the phoenix were having a uhh, uhh, like a tussle. They were, they started the race, and then they, like, started arguing with each other, cuz’, historically dragons and phoenixes are, like, real bad to each other, they don’t like each other, fight a lot, they’re both like kings of the sky, but theyre like very different kinds of king, and they’re both very prideful animals. So then they started fighting, and the dragon won the fight, and then managed to end up fifth. [laughs]

And everyone else starts trickling in, monkey, dog, and the pig actually ends up making it.

Umm, yeah, and the cat woke up too late, cuz it didn’t know, cuz the rat didn’t, like, alert the cat, and then the cat’s basically like, oh, well I guess I dont, oh, [laughs]

So the cat’s not in it, even though there were a bunch of cats back then. That’s that story.”

Analysis: This is a very unique take on the Chinese Zodiac origin story, as told from memory and in constant mental translation. Yet, with the occasional bit of American slang, all of the animations that the informant was making use of, and the constant changes in pitch and inflection to emphasize humor, it was a very fun and unique experience to listen to.

Like many myths, the Zodiac origin story probably has a slew of moral wisdom packed into it. The full story, therefore, likely has more lessons for the audience from each animal’s experience. Knowing the informant personally, however, it is evident why he recalled the rat’s cleverness most clearly, as that part of the story was likely the most relatable to him.

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