When I assess kids of primary school age and older taking up Chinese in school, I don’t only check their vocabulary bank, but ask them if they’ve heard, say, the story of the Chinese Zodiac or the Nian Monster. How about The Moon Lady? The Jade Rabbit? The Monkey King? The two weird tigers, because one has no ear and one no tail? Okay, so the last one is actually a song, but it’s still a narrative set to music. Most of the time I am met with blank stares. “Whaddya talkin’ about?” their expressions tell me.
What travesty of justice is this?! How can a child learning Chinese not know at least the tale behind the zodiac race? The kids themselves gave me two reasons: either nobody told them or it was mentioned sometime during preschool but was never brought up again.
Hmmm, come to think of it, I myself didn’t know this story existed until I became a Chinese teacher (I was already in my 40s then) and was looking for authentic Chinese materials, as opposed to Western icons like Mickey Mouse and the Little Mermaid. I was cognizant of the fact that aside from astrological signs, there was a Chinese version composed of 12 animals, because every year we’d get this huge red poster courtesy of Philtrust Bank. I knew my animal sign—horse—but I never really bothered to know its place in the sequence. I have always been amazed at how some Chinoys could memorize the order in Hokkien—something like chee, goo, hoh, toh—aaaand that’s all I remember! I can never get past toh, and have no idea who the 12 are unless I look at the poster.
No self-respecting creature of Chinese ethnicity should be clueless about the 十二生肖 (shi er sheng xiao), so I deemed it fit to share this legend. I have taken the liberty of combining several versions into one.
A long time ago, the Jade Emperor needed a way to measure time. He decided he wanted 12 animals to represent each month of the year—but who? It wouldn’t look good to be accused of favoritism, now, would it? So he thought of holding a race. In one account it’s only a swimming race across a river, whereas in another, participants had to face different challenges, like hike rocky terrain, climb mountains, traverse the grasslands, and cross a body of water. When the announcement was made, all the animals were excited to try their luck except the lion, because after all, he is already King of the Jungle and had nothing to prove.
During this time, Cat and Rat were BFFs. They were worried because they weren’t powerful swimmers, so they approached the kind Ox to let them hitch a ride, to which the Ox agreed since he was too much of a nice guy to turn them down.
In another corner of the forest, Dragon had this idea to borrow Rooster’s magnificent horns to make him look more noble. To vouch for him, he enlisted the help of Centipede, who appealed his case and acted as a guarantor. Dragon got what he wanted.
The day of the race came, and off they went! As promised, Cat and Rat hopped onto the back of Ox as he waded across the river, which was the last leg of the race. Apparently, something came over Rat, and he had to win at all costs, so he said to Cat, “Look at the beautiful clouds!” Cat tilted his head and Rat shoved him into the water! Ox was most likely too busy keeping his head afloat, so he was oblivious to the fact that one of his passengers had fallen overboard.
Rat started rallying Ox to go faster, and just before his hooves touched the finish line, Rat leaped in front and was declared the winner, Ox second. Third came Tiger and fourth Rabbit. Dragon was next, which struck the Emperor as odd. “You have wings! How come you came in fifth?” Dragon replied, “I had to stop to make rain because there was a drought, and I saw Rabbit struggling against the currents so I puffed some air to blow him out of the river.” What a guy, huh?
Then came the sound of thundering hooves, but just as Horse was about to cross the finish line, Snake jumped out from behind and beat him to the sixth slot! In one version, snakes used to have legs, but the race took its toll and they lost these appendages forever.
The next to arrive was the Goat or the Sheep. An explanation is needed here. The character 羊 can be either of the two. To differentiate, we need to add characters: 绵羊 is sheep and 山羊is goat. Let’s just continue the story with Goat.
Goat, Monkey, and Rooster arrived one after the other. They found a floating log and used it as a raft to get them to the other side of the riverbank. Everybody started to laugh at Monkey because his behind had turned red due to his incessant shuffling about on the log, thereby chafing his bum.
And then there were 11.
Read the full story to find out what happened to the Pig and the Cat, and other versions of this zodiac tale inside Asian Dragon Magazine’s January-March issue. Grab your copy from all leading bookstores nationwide or purchase the issue from the Asian Dragon Magazine App, free to download on Google Play Store, iTunes, and Amazon.