The Story of the Animals Behind the Chinese Zodiac: the Rat and the Cat

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First Across the Line

The Chinese zodiac follows a 12-year cycle with each year characterised by a different animal. The rat is the first sign in the Chinese zodiac and in 2020, the cycle starts anew. But, how was the sequence decided? To find out, we have to delve deep into Chinese mythology.

Ancient legend tells of a Great Race between the animals. Several variants of the story exist, but in one popular interpretation the Jade Emperor declared that the first 12 animals to sign up would be eligible to take part. And the order they finished in determined the order of the lunar calendar.

Cat and Rat were the best of friends. Cat liked to sleep late so on the morning of registration, Rat had agreed to wake him up. But, when the day came, Rat forgot all about his promise. And without his friend’s alarm call Cat overslept, missing his chance to sign up, which is why there’s no cat in the lunar calendar.

Rat meanwhile, with his spot in the race secured, was busy hatching a plan. The finish lay beyond a river. Ever resourceful, he realised that to get across the water he would need to enlist the help of Ox. Rat offered to sing a song of encouragement to Ox, but the big beast couldn’t hear him from down on the ground, so Rat persuaded Ox to let him climb on his back so he could sing in his ear.

He scampered up so he could sit on Ox’s shoulder and the song had the desired effect, encouraging Ox to pick up the pace. Riding on Ox’s back, Rat got across the river without so much as getting his feet wet. Biding his time until Ox was almost at the finish line, Rat jumped down to sneak ahead and win the race, earning his place as the first lunar animal.

Diligent Ox came second, while the speedy Tiger and Rabbit came third and fourth. Next came Dragon, with Snake one spot behind, followed by Horse and Sheep. Monkey had fallen behind but made up ground to come ninth, while Rooster, Dog and Pig filled the final three places.

And Cat? Hopping mad at his former friend, he still holds a grudge to this day. If you’ve ever wondered why cats hunt rats whenever they see them, now you know why. They’re still upset about what happened that morning!

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