This month has been one of the start of the New Year for several different communities, especially in India, as I wrote earlier. Every culture has its own calculations, myths and legends associated with the annual cycle of time.
Last week was the Chinese New Year, and the start of the Year of the Rat. The year of the Rat signifies the first year in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac. The years of the Rat include 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, and now, 2020.
The Chinese zodiac is based on a repeating 12-year cycle, with each year signified by an animal, in the following order–Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Those born in a specific year are said to possess certain characteristics of the animal, as defined in the Chinese belief system; and their fortunes are determined accordingly. For example people born in the year of the Rat are supposed to be intelligent, charming, quick-witted, practical and ambitious. They are also likely to be timid, stubborn, greedy, devious, too eager for power, and love to gossip!
Why these animals and why this specific order? There is an interesting legend linked to this. The story has many versions, but in essence it tells about a race. This is one version.
Once long, long ago, the Jade Emperor, one of the most important gods in traditional Chinese religion wanted to select 12 animals to be his guards. He sent his messengers to earth to invite all the animals in the world to take part in a race which would end by entering the Heavenly Gate.
Twelve species turned up at the start line: a pig, dog, rooster, monkey, sheep, horse, snake, dragon, rabbit, tiger, ox and rat.
As a reward for turning up, the Emperor named a year in the zodiac after each of these animals, but the race was to determine the order in which each animal would be placed in the zodiac, depending upon the order in which they reached the finish line.
All the animals set off on the course. On the way there was a big river that they had to cross. The Rat had got up and started early, but when it reached the river it felt helpless. But then it saw the strong Ox about to enter the water, so it used its wits and climbed onto the Ox’s head. The Ox was kind and let it ride with him. But as soon as they reached the other side, the wily rat quickly slid down and scampered to the finish line. And so the Rat came first, followed at number two by the diligent Ox.
Tiger and Rabbit were not far behind. Both were fast and competitive, but Tiger was faster and came in third. Rabbit who nimbly crossed the river by hopping on stepping stones and a floating log came fourth.
Everyone thought that the dragon with his magical powers of flight would be in front. But in fact the dragon took a detour to go ashore to help some villagers extinguish a fire. When it returned to the river, it saw that Rabbit was struggling on the log, and so the dragon used its breath to blow it to shore. The Rabbit never found out where the helpful breeze came from, but it finished before the Dragon, who came in at number five.
The Horse wasn’t far behind the Dragon and thought that sixth place was in the bag. However, it hadn’t noticed that the Snake had hitched a ride by wrapping itself around the Horse’s legs to save energy. Just as the finish line was in sight, the snake uncoiled itself and frightened the Horse. The Snake thus slyly slithered to sixth place while the horse came in seventh.
Next up were the Sheep (or Goat in some stories), Monkey and Rooster. They decided to work as a team and made a small raft to help them across the river. When they reached the other side, they dashed to the finish line. The Sheep/Goat reached first followed by the Monkey and the Rooster—ranking at number eight, nine and ten respectively.
That left the Dog and the Pig. The dog was playful and could not help splashing and enjoying itself in the river water while all the others overtook it. It landed up wet and panting to claim the eleventh rank. And where was the Pig? True to its nature, half way into the race it got hungry. So it decided to look for, and eat something to keep it going. But it ate so much that it just had to lie down and nap! When it awoke from its snooze, and made its way to the finish line, all the other animals had long crossed it. The Emperor had almost given up on it, but was happy to assign it the final space in the zodiac.
And so the 12 animals became the Emperor’s guards and were also assigned their place in the zodiac.
There is an interesting Post Script to this story which explains why the Cat is missing from the list. As the tale goes, Cat and Rat were then good friends, and both decided to join the race. But the Cat had a habit of waking up late. So, fearing he might miss the grand race, he asked the Rat to wake him up the next morning. The Rat, however, forgot his promise and left without his best friend.
Alas, when the Cat finally woke up, it was already too late, and he did not make it to the race on time. Hence, there is no year in the Chinese zodiac named after the Cat. And, this is why, until this day, the Cat will always hunt the Rat!
Here’s to the Year of the Rat!