The ox carried the rat, who pushed the cat, who nearly drowned and lost the race in a popular legend behind the Chinese Zodiac, an ancient system steeped in lore that both puzzles and enthralls around the world.
The 15-day Chinese New Year begins today, ushering in the Year of the Ox. But why does the year begin then, and why are the years marked by roosters and dragons and pigs?
The Chinese Zodiac is said to follow the stations of Jupiter’s orbit around the sun, which is just shy of 12 years. The animals mark years in a 12-year cycle that begins with rat, followed by ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar.
Why they fall that way has a colorful history.
One story has Buddha inviting all the animals in the kingdom to a meeting. In another, it’s the Jade Emperor holding a great banquet. Some animals outwit others to get there first, with their places in the zodiac assigned according to when they arrived.
A third legend is more like “The Amazing Race,” with plotting and scratching and clawing in a competition that includes a river crossing followed by a gathering at the emperor’s palace.
The kindly ox agrees to carry the scheming rat and the cat across the water on his back, but the rat betrays his friend the cat by pushing him into a swift current and hops off the ox to claim the top spot.
Always, the cat and the rat were once best friends but wind up mortal enemies after the cat fails to make the top 12.
The animal of your birth year defines and influences you as it “hides in your heart” for the rest of your life, a Chinese saying goes.
“People definitely draw inspiration from what animal they are,” said Oliver Chin, a San Francisco publisher who writes books for children on the Chinese Zodiac.
A person born in the Year of the Ox, for example, may be considered hardworking and dependable, while Rats might be shrewd, Pigs simple and Dragons noble and self-assured.
The more international Gregorian calendar was introduced in China in 1912, but an ancient calendar system continues to mark traditional dates for holidays and festivals.
Chinese New Year fluctuates with the appearance of the second new moon after the winter solstice in late January or early February.
The ancient calendar is a mathematician’s delight, but it did not originally include the animals.
Seemingly intended to create order out of chaos by marking positions of celestial bodies, the calendar has parts dating to the Shang dynasty in the 2nd millennium BC.
Unlike other cultures that had separate calendars to track the incongruous cycles of the moon and the sun, the Chinese calendar reconciled them in one system.
When the animals were integrated is not known.
“People young and old are fascinated (by them),” said Chin.
“Everyone wants their turn in the spotlight and it’s a little more special when you have to wait 12 years rather than 12 months.
“It’s always something to look forward to when your year rolls around.”