The Main Piece
Why is the cat not apart of the Chinese Zodiac calendar? Supposedly, the gods set up a competition, a race, for all the animals to compete and win their place in the calendar. However, while all the other animals knew what day the race would be on, the rat was clever and lied to the cat. The rat told the cat that the race would be on a different day so that when the race actually did happen, the cat was no where to be found. The cat wound up missing the race and was unable to be a part of the Zodiac calendar. This tale also explains why cats hate rats in the real world as well.
My informant is Rachel Tan, a current first year undergraduate student and personal friend of mine at USC. Being that her mother is Chinese and extremely cultured, she had a good understanding of the Zodiac calendar. Her mother would tell her this tale to explain how the animals got their place. She explained that it was a childhood story that she, and many of her other friends, grew up with. As a child, she enjoyed imagining and reenacting the race with her stuffed animals. It was because she could relate it with the Zodiac calendar, something she uses even to this day, that she can so easily remember the story and its relevance. She states that the story represents not just her childhood, but also her culture.
This Chinese tale was told to me previously as Rachel and I ate Panda Express together at the Ronal Tutor Campus Center. We were discussing our life back home, the setting was casual and conversation flowed easily.
I enjoyed hearing about the Zodiac calendar. My mother was never really too cultured so hearing about my own culture was a delight. I found it also intriguing that the tale was also able to incorporate an explanation for the cat’s dislike of rats, thereby offering some sort of validity to the story.
”I guess, because of the movement of the stars or something like that, the zodiacs should actually change over time. Which is why there’s supposed to be an extra zodiac in addition to the 12. I have heard that the 13th zodiac is supposed to be an evolved form of Scorpio, something that they move to at a certain level of knowledge. Scorpios are normally fiery, dark, and very sexual. They’re high energy and masculine. How my friend (who is a Scorpio) interpreted this evolution is that Scorpios will lose the negative aspects of these traits and become a better person because of it.”
Belief in the zodiac is something that has fluctuated over time. In recent years, the belief seems to have reemerged strongly. Like all folk beliefs, the iterations and nuances of the belief change over time as they feed into new generations. The above example illustrates how some have constructed an interpretation of the fabled “13th Zodiac”. In this particular instance, some have taken to modifying an existing zodiac to fill the role of the 13th Zodiac.
This modification of the existing Zodiac may be a result of modern culture, in which ideals like enlightenment and self-actualization are held strongly. The person from whom the informant learned about this belief was himself a Scorpio, and found this particular perspective meaningful. This could be born out of a desire to retain the positive traits associated with the sign, while leaving room to grow out of or improve upon the negative ones.
“In China, there’s this thing called your ben ming nian, which is pretty much the year–for example, I am the year of the ram. So when it is year of the ram, so every twelve years–so when I’m twelve, twenty four, thirty six…every day of that year, you should wear red. For example, my mom’s ben ming nian was last year. She wore red underwear every single day. Red is not a normal color in her normal wardrobe, but she was just like, ‘I have to wear red every day somehow,’ so she went to Victoria’s Secret and bought seven pairs of red underwear. Red is just a good luck color in China, and especially when it’s your zodiac year.”
The zodiac is a powerful belief in Chinese culture; many Chinese people believe that the year of your birth strongly influences your personality. As told by my informant, wearing the lucky color red during your zodiac year, or ben ming nian, makes the luck stronger and gives you a good year. The belief is so strong that her mother, who normally never wears the color red, went out and bought enough underwear so she could wear the lucky color year-round.
A long time ago, 13 animals lived in harmony. The 13 animals were the rat, cat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The king organized a race, telling the animals that they must compete in the race. In this race, the animals had to cross a fast flowing river and get to the other side to receive their prize, but there were only 12 prizes available. The rat and cat were really good friends, but were worried that they would not finish the race because they were both poor swimmers. The two came up with a plan. They went to the ox and admired the ox’s strength, asking if the ox would be kind enough to let them ride on its back across the river. The ox agreed. The race began and the ox quickly took the lead with the rat and cat sitting on his shoulders. When the ox neared the bank of the river, the rat pushed the cat into the river. The cat struggled to swim but was washed away by the currents. Then, the rat decided to jump off the shoulder of the ox, taking first place. The king gave the rat its reward, which was that the first year of the zodiac would be named after it. The ox received second place and got the second year of the zodiac named after him. Then the tiger crossed the bank and got the third year named after it. Then the rabbit appeared and got the fourth year named after it. Then the dragon appeared and got the fifth year named after it. Then the snake appeared and got the sixth year named after it. Then the horse appeared and got the seventh year named after it. Then the goat appeared and got the eighth year named after it. Then the monkey appeared and got the ninth year named after it. Then the rooster appeared and got the tenth year named after it. Then the dog appeared and got the eleventh year named after it. And then, in last place the pig appeared, slowly trudging along, and got the twelfth year named after it. Crawling out of the water, the cat appeared, but did not receive a prize. Since then, cats and rats have always been enemies. And that is how the animals of the Chinese Zodiac came to be.
My informant first heard this myth from his parents around Chinese New Year. That time of year lends itself to this story as it serves as an explanation for the ordering of the years in the Chinese Zodiac and is the basis for the personality profiles of people born in the different years.. This myth is fairly wide spread and has a number of different forms. Here I have included my informants favorite version, but there are others that include why the dragon. This myth emphasizes intelligence and cunning over brute strength, as the meek rat is ultimately triumphant. It also seems to condone betrayal, as the rat is rewarded despite his actions.
“The animals had a race to determine the order of the Zodiac. They had to cross a river. So the mouse used his brain instead of his brawn because he knew he couldn’t win with brawn. So he hitched a ride on the water ox because it’s the fastest swimmer. So the rat was able to jump off the ox and finish first. The ox finished second. Tiger was third. The rabbit jumped across and was fourth. The dragon came next. And then, I think, the snake like, hitched a ride on the horse and scared it. So then it was sixth. The horse came after the snake. And then, the sheep, the monkey, and the chicken, also made it across. And then the dog decided taking a bath was more important, so it finished eleventh. And then the last was the pig because it stopped half way to have a meal and rest.”
The informant heard about this piece of folklore from a taxi driver in Taipei, Taiwan when she was about 8 years old. This story is based off of the way that the current Chinese zodiac is formatted. She says that she believes that this story isn’t true but was made up for children to learn about the zodiac in Chinese culture. I think it’s a creation myth of the Chinese culture, as the zodiac is a very prominent part of the culture. It is obviously a myth as it is not fully a tale where it is obviously not real, but it is not a legend where things could have been necessarily true. I think that although it is not sacred to the informant, this story would be sacred to many Chinese people who put a lot of faith in the zodiac and therefore, would tell this story to future generations with a sense of revery.
从前，玉皇大帝举行一个比赛来决定十二生肖的顺序排列， 那天早上谁先到皇宫就排那位。 每一个年会有一个不同的动物。消息宣布的时候，第一个听到的是老鼠。老鼠知道自己个子小，没机会用自己的体量来赢，所以他就想出一个能赢得办法。
A long time ago, the Jade emperor decided to have a race to see who was going to be the twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac. The first twelve who reached the Jade Emperor’s place would be the members of the Chinese zodiac in that order. The first person to hear about the news was the Rat. Since the Rat was small, he knew that there was no way he would win without outside help and began to formulate a plan.
On the day of the competition, he went to the house of the Bull, because firstly, most creatures were scared of the Bull and it wasn’t smart like the tiger, horse or dragon, who would know what it was thinking and the Bull lived nearest the Place. He asked the Bull, if he could hitch a ride to the palace and the Bull agreed. Since the Bull wasn’t the brightest of animals, he forgot that the rat was riding on his head halfway through the race.
Once at the palace, the rat jumped through the air and was the first animal to enter the palace and won the race. Naturally, the Bull was not pleased with this development, but he had no other choice than to accept his place at number two.
This was told to my informant during a Chinese New Year celebration when she was in primary school during the year of the Rat. It tends to be a story to tell children about the reasons behind the placements of the Chinese zodiac and why such a small animals is placed first. Like most legends, there are multiple versions floating around the world. Some are because the Rat defeated the elephant by going into its ear and other stories discuss the reasons why the Cat is not in the Chinese Zodiac
Unlike the western zodiac where it follows the signs in the sky, the Chinese zodiac rotates every twelve years with an animal representing each year. Each year is supposed to be prosperous for doing different things, luckier years for having children or getting married are the Dragon and Pig years. The Dragon because it is a symbol for intelligence and strength, while the Pig is a sign of wealth and prosperity in the Chinese culture. On the other hand, the rat is supposed to be a cunning and quick witted animal
This is an example also, to teach children that might does not always win, but the smart and the cunning usually end up on the top. Teaching children not to underestimate things because of their size, but evaluate carefully and not be rash.