Race for the best place in the zodiac | Global Ideas | DW | 07.04.2015
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Global Ideas

Race for the best place in the zodiac

Every year, one of the 12 animals featured in the Chinese calendar steps into the limelight. But what are these dozen creatures that make the cut - and what are their stories?

There are twelve animals in the Chinese horoscope. Starting with the rat, this is followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, monkey, cockerel, dog and pig. But why does the rat lead the pack, while the mighty tiger is third in line? And why is the dragon the only mythical creature in the zodiac? There are probably more legends that attempt to explain this than animals to which they relate.

A test of clever and cunning

Let's take Buddhism. Before his journey to the earth, Buddha called all the animals together. Only 12 followed the instructions, and by way of reward, they were each given a year of their own. The order in which the animals appear on the zodiac is the order in which they arrived at the designated meeting point.

Another legend says God ordered a feast, which 13 animals were supposed to attend. They included the 12 mentioned above, and the cat - which did not turn up because the rat tricked it into believing the dinner was the next day. So the cat slept and dreamed of the banquet, while the others lined up in the order of their arrival, and ate their fill.

The cat - and again here, there are different takes on the tale - has never forgiven the rat for its ploy. It has been out to seek revenge - not only on rats, but mice too - ever since.

The great race

But the most cited story goes something like this: Since the beginning of time, cats and rats have been known as the worst swimmers in the entire animal kingdom. But they made up for this deficit by being particularly clever. So when the Jade Emperor called the animals together to determine the order in which they should appear in the zodiac, the cat and the rat came up with a ploy. Because they could not reach the meeting point without crossing a river, and because they were known to be such poor swimmers, they convinced the ox to carry them across on his back.

Being a good-natured and short-witted creature, the ox agreed. But halfway across the water, the rat pushed the cat into the water, where it drowned. The ox, being the ox, didn't even notice - and when it reached the other side, the rat hurried down from its back and scurried off to become the first animal to join the emperor. In second place was the ox, who is next in line in the zodiac.

A short while later, the tiger turned up wheezing and trembling with exhaustion, and complaining of currents strong enough to drag it under the water. It was only thanks to his mighty strength, the big cat explained, that he arrived alive. From then on, he was third in the zodiac.

Following the tiger, no less happy but a little less exhausted, was the rabbit, who had crossed the river by hopping from one stone to the next. On one, however, he stumbled and almost slipped into the water. Only at the last moment was he able to grab hold of a tree trunk and make it to the other side.

It is also said, however, that the dragon - who was next to arrive - helped the rabbit. When the Jade Emperor asked the dragon, who is a fast, winged creature, why he only made it in fifth place, he explained that he had repeatedly stopped to help others. He was, he said, a helpful creature. As helpful, indeed, as rats are sneaky. As he was approaching the destination, the dragon continued, he found the rabbit clinging helplessly to a tree trunk, and ensured his safe passage to shore.

The Jade Emperor was so delighted by the selflessness of the dragon, that he included him in the zodiac.

At that point, the river swelled with the thunder of hooves that heralded the horse's arrived. The snake was wrapped around one of its legs, and when it jumped off, the horse was so stunned that it missed its footing, and its chance to be the sixth animal in the lineup - a spot the snake took. So the horse had to make do with seventh place.

The grand finale

Not long thereafter - and in quick succession - the goat, the monkey and the cockerel also reached the riverbank. They had helped each other across the water. Having spotted a raft, the cock asked the others to help him use it. Both the monkey and the goat were happy to oblige. And because they had worked so well together, the Emperor gladly gave them places eight, nine and 10 on the Chinese calendar.

The remaining two places in the group of 12 went to the dog and the pig. The former was the 11th to arrive - and although he was a good swimmer and could have been there sooner, he couldn't resist the opportunity to play in the water. Dogs will, after all, be dogs.

Just as the Jade Emperor was about to declare the race finished, with 11 animals in the zodiac, he heard a pig squealing in the distance. Along it trotted, explaining as it reached the others that it had gotten hungry en route, and had therefore decided to take a short break. Short became long when the pig fell asleep. Nonetheless, it became the last of the chosen 12.

But what of the cat? To this day it is still chasing mice and rats. And it will continue to do so until the very end of time.

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