The Zodiac Ox and Second Place – Chinese Myth

Story: “You’re already familiar with the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, but why do you think the ox is only second place and the second zodiac sign? The ox is actually very talented and good at swimming. He is a very hard worker. On the day of the Jade Emperor’s great race, he woke up very early and got straight to work making his way towards the finish line. The last part of the race was a great river that all the participants had to cross. The rat who won first place made it to the river at the same time as the ox, but the rat couldn’t swim, so he hid in the ox’s fur. The ox unknowingly carried the cunning rat across the river, and the rat jumped across the finish line off the ox’s back in the last second. That is why the ox had to grudgingly settle for second place, and the rat got first place in the great race.”

Background and Context: This is one of the twelve stories told about the twelve different Chinese zodiac signs that serve as the symbols for each year in the lunar calendar. My mother was born on the year of the ox in 1961, and the animal sign for this year (2021) was the ox. My father was born a year earlier than my mother in the year of the rat. My father told me this story of the ox after I went back home for dinner on Chinese New Year, which he heard from his parents and grandparents growing up in China. He used it to explain why working hard like the ox is good, but working smarter like the rat is better. He also stated that my mother is such a hard worker because she was born in the year of the ox, and why my mother is very good at swimming. My father says that while people born on the year of the ox are stubborn, they don’t typically hold grudges for long.

Thoughts: I didn’t really think much of the myth. Growing up, I was used to hearing the stories of the twelve zodiacs, and my parents would use the stories of the year of the snake and the year of the horse to explain the behaviors of me and my brother and what we had to watch out for. My father believes that the zodiac signs signify actual behaviors in people who are born in the associated years, but I see it as more of a coincidence. From what I’ve seen, the specific behavior of an individual that matches their zodiac sign is used to explain why the zodiac signs are significant in Chinese culture, any discrepancies that do not match associated behaviors can be dismissed due to multiple other factors such as weather when they are born, month or time of birth, the relationship of the individual’s zodiac sign with those of their family, their siblings, and many other factors. I went to a Chinese school for six years from elementary to middle schools, and my teachers would tell me similar stories. There were many similarities in the ways that my Chinese teachers and my parents treated these legends, as they refer to them with at least some form of truth and application to the real world. Even when talking about students or gossiping about coworkers, they would refer to the zodiac signs when discussing their behaviors.