This Is the Story of How the Lunar Zodiac Got Its Animals

Greta Samuel /
Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip

On Lunar New Year across East and Southeast Asia, the story of how 12 animals ended up in the Chinese Zodiac – and its counterparts across the region – is told in various ways. This telling involves an emperor, a race and a friendship that dissolves into an eternal feud.

Depending on the country celebrating Lunar New Year, the story of how the zodiac got its animals varies.

In some, the animals are called by the Jade Emperor to compete to be his guards, their placement in the race determining their rank. In one, the ox only offers the rat a ride if it promises to sing for the entire journey – though, if you have ever been subjected to a private serenade, you may be forgiven for mistaking this payment for punishment. The Vietnamese telling has the cat make it across the river in place of the rabbit, and, instead of an ox, a buffalo occupies the second place in the zodiac.

Regardless of how the story is told, the animals are used to mark days, hours and months, with each one lending its own particular characteristics – the hours from 11pm to 1am are associated with the rat, for instance, because it is most likely to scavenge during this time.

So, without further ado, here’s the Culture Trip version of how the zodiac got its stars.


When the Jade Emperor – the Emperor of Heaven and Earth – decided it was time his earthly subjects were given the means to measure the passing of the seasons, he turned to the animal kingdom for help. Each year in the calendar’s 12-year cycle would be marked with an animal.

The news was met by eager ears, but there was a problem. There were far more than 12 animals, and each wanted a place in the zodiac.

The emperor decided he would hold a race to determine which of the animals he would include. The animals, anxious to have their names written among the stars, were tasked with swimming over a river with a particularly swift current. The first 12 to make it across to the emperor would win a spot.

For some, the task was easy; others needed to get a little help from their friends.

The rat and the cat, excellent friends but inept swimmers, enlisted the help of the good-natured ox. They asked if they could ride on its back so all three could cross the finish line together. The ox heartily agreed, and the plan was set.

The unlikely trio set out to win, and, though the ox was slow on land, it was a strong swimmer and made up time in the water, soon pulling ahead of the others.

The cat and the rat were overjoyed that their plan was working, but the rat had its sights set on glory. It pushed the cat into the water and, once safely on the shore, leaped from the ox’s back and scurried across the finish line to claim the first place in the zodiac, with the ox lumbering behind to take the second.

In their wake came the tiger. Tired from fighting the strong current, it was relieved to take third place.

Soon after, the rabbit came bounding through in fourth place, though it didn’t escape unscathed. While hopping from stone to stone in the river, a misstep plunged it into the river; luckily, it was able to climb onto a floating log and a gust of wind propelled the vessel to the riverbank.

Next came the dragon, soaring effortlessly through the clouds to land at the Jade Emperor’s feet. The emperor, confused by the dragon’s failure to win (it did have the advantage of flight, after all), asked the dragon to explain what had happened.

The dragon, ever so charitable, was delayed by his efforts to extinguish a fire in a farmer’s field and to blow the troubled rabbit across the river to shore. Touched, the emperor inducted the dragon as the fifth animal of the zodiac.

At this point, the horse came galloping out of the water, well on its way to claiming the next spot, only to be startled when the snake came slithering up. The horse reared in shock as the snake calmly crossed the finish line to claim the sixth place and relegate the horse to seventh.

A short while later, the sheep, monkey and rooster walked ashore. The three had worked together to cross the river in a raft. And, though they arrived together, the monkey and rooster felt the sheep deserved eighth place for being such a calming influence when they had panicked during the arduous journey. The sheep took eighth place, while the monkey and rooster were ninth and 10th respectively.

Not long after, the dog came charging out of the water to 11th place. As the best swimmer of the group, the others thought the dog was a sure winner, but it was having too much fun playing in the water to worry about the race.

The eleven winners waited alongside the emperor, eager to see who would earn the final spot. Their answer came in the form of a loud grunt. The pig, left hungry by the treacherous crossing, had stopped on the riverbank to search for food. Belly full, it had taken a quick nap, only to wake in fright, worried there would be no spots left to claim.

The poor cat, washed up on the wrong side of the river, looked on in despair as the emperor and his 12 champions celebrated. Bitter with betrayal, the cat swore vengeance.

Its ancestors have been enemies to rats ever since.
This is an updated version of a story created by Ciaran McEneaney.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article