The Zodiac Race
Submitted by: Susanna
This Chinese folk tale explains the naming of the Chinese years after different animals.
When the Jade emperor of China decided to name the years, he made an announcement to the whole world. He would hold a race, and on the day of the race, whichever 12 animals were able to cross the wide river and reach his imperial castle first, would receive the honor of having a year named after them. The fastest animals in the land prepared for the race. Dragon, tiger, ox, horse and rabbit, who were know for the swiftness, thought they could win. But snake, cat and rat were more clever and cunning than the other animals. Pig and dog weren’t worried. They knew they could get to the palace because they were good swimmers. Goat, monkey and rooster were all unsure they would be able to make it to the palace, but they decided to do their best.
On the day of the race, the rat and the cat were very worried because they were the worst swimmers of all the animals. But they were also the most clever. So they devised a plan together. They would trick the ox, who was very strong, fast and kind, into carrying them across the river. Ox quickly agreed to carry them, as he was a kind animal. But when ox, rat and cat were in the middle of the river, rat pushed cat off of ox. Cat was caught by the current and couldn’t cross the river. (This is why cats always chase rats. They are still angry about rat pushing cat off ox’s back.)
At the edge of the river, the rat quickly hopped off of the ox’s back and ran ahead to be the first to the palace and claim the first year.
Ox trotted behind and was the second to the palace.
Tiger came into the palace soon after ox, panting. “The current was too strong,” he complained. “I could barely cross the river!” Despite tiger’s speed and confidence, he came in third.
From the imperial palace, the emperor could see dragon flying in the distance. The dragon was famous for being very fast, so the emperor was surprised that he hadn’t arrived yet. And before the dragon landed, little rabbit hopped up to the palace doors.
“How did you get here?” asked the emperor, “I thought you couldn’t swim.”
“I can’t,” said the rabbit. “I hopped on the rocks to cross the river. But when I fell off a rock, I was lucky enough to find a floating branch to hang on to. I still wouldn’t have been able to cross, but a lucky gust of wind pushed me to the shore!” So rabbit became the name of the fourth year.
Then dragon arrived. The emperor was a bit angry that such a fast, and magical animal had arrived so late.
“On my way here, I saw a village that was on fire,” explained the dragon, “so I stopped to help them. I used my magic to make it rain. They were saved from the fire. Then as I flew over the river I saw a helpless rabbit holding on to a log in the river. He couldn’t swim at all! So I blew a wind to push him to the shore.”
The emperor was impressed with the dragon’s kindness. He named the fifth year after the dragon.
Then the emperor heard the clippity-clop of the horse in the distance. The horse was galloping very fast. But suddenly snake jumped out from under horse. Snake had wrapped himself around horse’s leg without horse knowing it. Horse was so scared by the sight of snake, that he jumped back with a loud, “Ne-e-e-e-igh.” While horse recovered from the shock, snake slithered quickly to the palace. He claimed sixth place while the horse got seventh.
Then, in the distance, the emperor could see a tired goat, monkey and rooster walking together. He did not expect any of them to come to the castle that day. They couldn't swim.
"How did you get here?" he asked them.
"We helped each other," said the rooster. "I found a raft and the others cleared it and steered so we could safely cross."
The emperor was very pleased that they worked together to finish the race. He gave goat the eighth place, monkey the ninth place and rooster the tenth place.
There were still two more spots to claim for the zodiac, but the sun had almost set. Then the emperor heard panting. A very wet dog came leaping toward the emperor.
"Why are you so late?" the emperor asked. "You are the best swimmer and a very fast runner."
The dog was late because he wanted to play in the river for as long as possible.
"I needed a bath before I came to see your imperial greatness," panted the dog.
The emperor looked at him suspiciously, but then decided to give the dog the 11th place in the zodiac.
As the sun set, the emperor wondered if there would only by 11 animals in the zodiac. But then he heard a squeal and an oink.
"You're too late!" said the emperor to the pig that was just then plodding toward the castle.
"Oh, but your highness, I got SO hungry that I had to stop and eat. After my lunch I accidentally fell asleep! Please let me be part of the zodiac!"
"Fine, the emperor agreed. The sun is setting and you are the last animal in the zodiac."