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“The Great Race” – Here’s Why Every Chinese New Year is Represented by 1 of 12 Different Animals


Source: Mythopedia & Times Herald-Record

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With the Year of the Rabbit drawing to a close, devotees from all around the globe are getting ready to usher in the Year of the Dragon for 2024’s Chinese New Year festivities.

And while most of us have understood the order of animals that go through the system of succession every year when celebrating the lunar new year, have you every wondered, why are the 12 distinct animals used to represent each year when observing Chinese New Year?


Image for illustration purposes only.

According to a report on the Wake Forest University page, the Chinese Zodiac, also known as shēngxiào, is a traditional classification scheme based on the Chinese calendar, which assigns an animal and its reputed attributes to each year in a repeating 12-year cycle.

In order, the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals are the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

While many myths have plagued generations with perspectives and avenues as to why these creatures have been assigned as such in their according arrangement, none other is more clear than the story of The Great Race.

The Great Zodiac Race Series Banner

Image for illustration purposes only.


A manner to measure time

Based on an ancient myth, a ruler of the heavens and one of the representations of the first God in Chinese culture, The Jade Emperor, otherwise known as Yù Dì, sought to devise a manner to measure time. In concocting a plan, the emperor organised a race between the animals on Earth.

The idea was that the first 12 to cross a river in China would earn their spot on the zodiac calendar, in the order which they arrived. This was dubbed, The Great Race.

Jade Emperor Chinese Ruler Of Heaven
An illustration of The Jade Emperor.

Other accounts of this story, such as that on website ThingsAsian, suggests that the Jade Emperor, who ruled Heaven and Earth, never had time to visit Earth, growing curious about what the creatures who inhabited it looked like. Therefore, he asked all the animals to visit him in heaven.

Upon being delighted by the animals who came, he decided to divide the years amongst them. Another legend says that the Jade Emperor needed to choose 12 animals as palace guards.

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Image for illustration purposes only.


A race to the end, and ultimately, for first place

Briefly discussed on a video by TED-Ed, the day of the race began with the Rat rising with the sun to get an early start. Realising its trouble with swimming, the Ox agreed to help the Rat cross the river. Before reaching the end of the river, the Rat jumped off the Ox’s head, securing itself first place.

The Tiger eventually mustered itself the strength to third place, while the Rabbit, tiny in stature, nimbly hopped across stones on the river to claim fourth.

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The Dragon was said to have an upper hand, easily flying across the river to secure a higher spot, though it stopped along the way to help other animals, landing itself fifth place. The Horse galloped across the river with ease, though the slither of the Snake just inches in front made the animal squirm, losing out sixth place and instead landing at seventh.

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Image for illustration purposes only.

Working together to get to the end, the Goat, Monkey, and Rooster had paddled a raft to get through the river. The trio agreed to give eighth place to the Goat, who was said to be the most harmonious of the group, with the Monkey and Rooster taking ninth and 10th respectively.

The Dog was said to have frolicked in the water for a significant amount of time, despite being a great swimmer, as it wanted to bathe. This landed the creature at 11th place. Lastly, the Pig clutched the 12th and final spot. When asked by the Jade Emperor why it took so long to reach the end, the Pig stated that it had gotten hungry and fell asleep momentarily.

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There was apparently, a 13th competitor?

Another version of the story also included a Cat, who was said to be the handsomest of the animals. One account states that the Rat, who did not think itself as beautiful as the Cat, refused to wake it up on the day of the race, thereby causing the cat to lose altogether.

Other stories state that the Cat had also joined the Rat on the Ox as they crossed into the river, as cats are not good swimmers. However, noticing that the cat would probably be faster, the Rat pushed the Cat off the Ox at some point, thereby causing the poor animal to fall behind.

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Image for illustration purposes only.

By either account, the Cat was said to achieve 13th place, unable to land itself in the line-up for the calendar. Such a story lead to the popular notion of why a great feud exists between cats and rats in daily life.

As time progressed, various cultures have also created diverging zodiacs that better integrate into their societies. In an article by South China Morning Post, the Rabbit is actually replaced with the Cat in Vietnam, as the people there interpret the Chinese term for rabbit, mao, as the Vietnamese word for cat, which is meo.

This Year Is The Year Of Cat In Vietnam Unlike Other V0 Alk3Pofastda1
Celebration of the Year of the Cat in Vietnam, 2023.

In whichever way one chooses to view the Chinese Zodiac as it pertains to the Lunar New Year celebration, the colourful and ambitious story that is The Great Race adds a touch of interest and admiration towards a festivity full of joy and charm.

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Image for illustration purposes only.


Which Chinese Zodiac do you belong to? May this Year of the Dragon bring you nothing but prosperity!


Also read: Lion Dancers Light Up Streets of S’pore With Magnificent Flashing Costumes That Have LED Lights

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Source: Pinterest
Source: Mythopedia
Source: TED
Source: TED
Source: TED
Source: TED
Source: TED
Source: Twinkl
Source: Reddit

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