By Tom Booth
Chinese New Year starts on Saturday 25th January 2020, the first day of the Lunar Year and the beginning of China’s Spring Festival. Lunar Years, unlike Solar Years, exist on a twelve year cycle called the Zodiac Cycle or shengxiao. Each year in the cycle is associated with one of twelve animals and that animal’s reputed characteristics.
Chinese New Year celebrations are not just limited to China: Korean New Year and Vietnamese New Year share many similarities with Chinese New Year. Nowadays it is celebrated internationally in regions and countries with significant numbers of overseas Chinese residents.
This year is the Year of the Rat, the first in the Zodiac Cycle. But why is the Rat number one? We normally think of rats as small and dirty pests rather than revered celestial beings. What puts them ahead of much larger, more impressive creatures such as dragons, tigers and oxen?
The answer can be found in the legend of the Heavenly Gate Race that originates from Chinese mythology. The story is ancient, and has been retold many times, each time with slight variations on the content. Here is just one version, without too much elaboration.
Thousands of years ago the Jade Emperor made the official decision that the lunar years would each be named after animals. In order to determine which animal would be given each year, he devised a race: the first animal to reach him in his palace would be named after the first year, second place the second year and so on.
In front of the palace was a deep, fast flowing river. The rat, unable to swim across such treacherous waters, asked the ox whether he could ride on his back to cross the river. The ox, being gentle and good natured, agreed without complaint. However, as they reached the opposite bank the rat leaped off the ox’s back and rushed towards the emperor. It arrived first, and so the first year in the Zodiac Cycle was attributed to the rat.
The second year was given to the ox.
Third was the tiger, who was strong and agile but struggled against the strong waters.
Fourth was the rabbit, who used its agility to jump between stones across the river.
Fifth was the dragon, who saved a starving village by providing them rain, thus slowing him down.
Impressed by the dragon’s action, the emperor said the dragon’s child could be sixth: the snake slithered out and declared that it was the dragon’s son, and so the year was given to the snake.
The swift horse came seventh.
The goat, monkey and rooster were not good at swimming, and so built a raft and sailed across, coming eighth, ninth and tenth.
The dog was good at swimming but enjoyed splashing about in the water too much and so came eleventh.
The pig came twelfth, having got tired and stopped off for a rest half way through.
One animal seems to be missing from the list of twelve: where is the cat? Cats have historically been popular animals in China, and have a long history of domestication. The absence of the cat is explained by two different stories. The first story says that both the rat and the cat were riding the ox towards the Jade Emperor’s palace. At the last minute, the rat pushed the cat off the ox’s back and into the water, eliminating it from the race. It is said that this is why cats hate water.
The second story has the cat and rat as old friends who used to help each other out. The rat would wake the naturally lazy cat up in the mornings, and in return the cat would protect the rat from larger predators. On the day of the race, the rat left the cat sleeping in order to gain a head start in the race. The cat failed to wake up in time and so couldn’t participate in the race.
Whichever story you take, it explains the hatred between cats and rats – which seems to go almost beyond the instinctual relationship of predator and prey!
The Year of the Rat is therefore a year when everyone can aspire to the wit and intelligence of the rat in the Heavenly Gate Race!
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