Happy Chinese New Year: Year of the Rat!

Thursday marked the beginning of the Chinese year 4706, the Year of the Rat. That means it’s time to share one of many versions of the myth about…

The Rat Race

The American Packrat. Awwww.Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor (or Buddha, some say) was holding a casting call for the signs of the Chinese Zodiac. The Chinese Zodiac wasn’t like the Babylonian one, of course. Instead of dividing the year into twelve months, it was a cycle of twelve years. But the idea was the same. Twelve lucky animals would each get to represent one out of every twelve years, and be the answer to that all-important question, “What’s your sign?” Talk about name recognition!

Many animals were eager to be one of the big twelve, and a noisy crowd showed up for the Jade Emperor’s summons. His challenge was simple. The first twelve animals to cross a certain river would get their names added to the wheel of years.

Now Rat and Cat, who were good friends in those days, had arrived together. Their whiskers twitched in dismay when they heard the Jade Emperor’s words. They weren’t stupid. They couldn’t fly, and they weren’t huge and strong like Horse and Ox. They didn’t have much of a chance. So they talked it over, and hatched a clever plan.

Ox, they decided, had the best chance of winning the prize. They’d seen him ford rivers like Cat stalking through tall grass. Also, he wasn’t too bright. So Cat and Rat asked Ox if they might hitch a ride across. That way, they told him, they would take second and third place after he’d won.

Ox was willing enough. Cat hopped onto his back with no trouble, and Rat shimmied up his tail, and off they went with a heave and a splash.

Halfway across, Rat proved himself a rat. Splash! He pushed Cat into the river. Then Rat scampered out to the tip of Ox’s horn and jumped ashore first. Some folks tell a slightly different story, that Rat took a good hard chomp on Ox’s tail, and — whoosh! — like a child playing crack-the-whip, Rat got flung the last few yards. Either way, Rat was declared the winner, and he became the first animal on the Chinese Zodiac. Poor Ox had to content himself with second place.

As for Cat, by the time she had thrashed her way ashore, bedraggled and half-drowned, the race was finished. Cat’s never forgiven her former friend, and she’s hated water ever since.

You can read about what happened to the rest of the animals here.:link:


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