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Theo Payne / © Culture Trip
Theo Payne / © Culture Trip

The Story Behind the Chinese Zodiac

Picture of Ciaran McEneaney
Updated: 16 February 2018

As Chinese New Year approaches we get ready to celebrate the coming of the Year of the Dog, but did you ever wonder why the Chinese Zodiac is based on animals? Well, as with many other Taiwanese festivals, there is, of course, a story behind it, and it involves the Jade Emperor and a race.

The Great Race

The Jade Emperor (the Emperor of Heaven and Earth) decided one day that it was high time the people had a means to measure the passing of the seasons. In his wisdom, he decided that there would be a 12-year cycle with each year named after an animal. Unfortunately, there were far more than 12 animals, and each wanted to have their place in the Chinese Zodiac.

So the Emperor decided that there would be a great race. Any animal that wanted a place in the zodiac would have to cross a swift current and reach a designated place. The first 12 to do so would have their place.

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Theo Payne / © Culture Trip

At this point in time, the rat and cat were actually very good friends. Neither were good swimmers, and they knew that if they wanted their place in the zodiac, they would need to be clever. Knowing that the Ox was a good-natured animal, they asked if they could ride his back so all three could cross the finish line at the same time. The ox, being the polite animal that he was, agreed, and so the plan was set.

The day of the race arrived, and while the Ox was slow on land he was a quick and strong swimmer and even with the cat and rat on his back he soon pulled ahead of the others. The cat and rat were overjoyed, but the rat decided that first place would be his and his alone and so he pushed the cat into the water. The cat struggled but managed to make it to the river bank, but unfortunately he was on the wrong side of the river.

As the Ox climbed out of the water and lumbered towards the finish line (and first place), the rat leaped from his back and won the race. This made him the first animal in the Chinese Zodiac, with the ox as second. Because of his actions, the cat has never forgiven the rat, and to this day their ancestors are mortal enemies.

Next, and in third place, came the tiger who had been carried downriver a little by the strong current. Soon after came the rabbit, who had hopped from stone to stone until halfway across it had fallen into the river. Fortunately, it managed to climb aboard a floating log, and a sudden gust of wind had blown it ashore.

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Theo Payne / © Culture Trip

Next, the dragon came soaring through the clouds landing at the Jade Emperor’s feet. The Emperor was confused and thought that the dragon should have won, and so he asked what had happened. The dragon explained that from his vantage point in the sky he saw a farmer’s field on fire and so stopped to make rain to extinguish the flames. He then noticed the rabbit stuck on the log and so blew a great breath to help him reach the shore. The Emperor was very pleased with the dragon and felt relieved that he had made it into the zodiac and so was happy to announce him as fifth in the cycle.

At this point, the horse came galloping out of the water and was on its way to sixth place when suddenly the snake came slithering out of the grass. The horse reared in shock, and the snake calmly crossed the line to claim sixth and put the horse back in seventh.

A short while later the sheep, monkey, and rooster came to shore. These three animals had worked together to cross the river in a raft. The monkey and rooster felt that the sheep deserved eighth place for being such a calming influence as the other two had panicked while on the raft. And so it was that the sheep took eighth place, while the monkey took ninth and the rooster 10th.

Not long after, the dog came running out of the water panting and out of breath. Apparently, although he was the best swimmer of the group, his playful nature had gotten the better of him, and he had spent too much time jumping about in the water. In the end, he was lucky to get 11th place.

And they all waited to see who would be the 12th animal and claim the final place in the zodiac. Soon they heard a loud grunt, and the pig came running swiftly towards the finish line. This was another animal that surprised the emperor as the pig was usually as quick as they come. The pig explained that on the way he got hungry and decided to explore the river bank for something to eat. He then took a quick nap and had only just woken up to realize that he might be too late. Fortunately for him, there was one last place left, and the pig was named as the 12th animal of the Chinese Zodiac.

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Theo Payne / © Culture Trip

And that is how the legend goes. Although from time to time the telling of the story may change slightly, no matter who tells it, the basic concept remains the same. The rat was sly and cunning, the ox dependable, the dragon considerate, the dog playful, and the pig greedy and lazy. Ask any child in Taiwan the order of the zodiac, and not only will they tell you each animal’s place but also the story too. As far as age-old legends go, this is the one that children enjoy the most.