The Great Chinese Zodiac Race


Last Sunday, January 22nd, kicked off the start of the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Rabbit. With the Rabbit as its symbol, 2023 is marked as a year of hope, peace, and prosperity. Along with the Rabbit zodiac, there are 11 other zodiacs that make up the order of the lunar calendar: (from first to last) Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat/Sheep/Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each zodiac appears every 12 years, and each symbolizes something different.

But have you ever wondered how the order of these Chinese zodiacs came to be? While there are many variations of this tale, I’m going to tell you the version that I learned while growing up.

The Race to the Finish

It all started with the Jade Emperor and his birthday celebration. He decided to hold a race for the animals in his kingdom, which was a great honor for all. The order that each animal finished the race would determine its rank. The Emperor selected 12 animals to participate in this race (the ones that are now part of the lunar calendar), and the next day, they would compete in a dash for the finish line.

Early the next morning, the Rat decided to get a head start. As it made its way forward, it encountered a river that would have been difficult to cross as a small animal. Luckily, the Ox was just about to cross the river himself, so the Rat jumped on the Ox’s head and got a ride through the rapid current. At the last second, as the Ox was about to reach the finish line, the Rat hopped off the Ox’s head and took first place. This placed Rat as number one and Ox as number two.

*An interesting thing to note is the relationship between the Rat and the Cat (who is not part of the 12 Chinese zodiacs). The Rat and Cat were actually friends and were supposed to compete in the race together. However, on the morning of the Emperor’s birthday, the Cat was still napping at the time of the race, and the Rat forgot to wake the Cat. Because of this, the Cat never made it to the race and into the lunar calendar. Alternatively, the Vietnamese culture disregards this story entirely, and instead, replaces the Rabbit with the Cat since cats are more popular. So in Vietnam, they are currently celebrating the Year of the Cat.

Next to finish was the Tiger (in third) and the Rabbit (in fourth). While they were both quick on their feet, the Tiger was faster. During the race, the Rabbit hopped on stepping stones and a floating log. Some variations say that the Rabbit slipped, placing it behind the Tiger, but the version I learned did not include any additional information.

Following the Rabbit was the Dragon, who many thought would place first because it could fly. However, on its way to the finish, the Dragon stopped to help some villagers, which set it back to fifth in the race. Some stories even say that the Dragon helped the Rabbit get across the river by blowing on its floating log. This is likely why the Dragon is a symbol of nobleness and honor.

The Horse was next, galloping towards the end when suddenly, the Snake wrapped itself around the Horse’s legs. This slowed down the Horse, giving the Snake the opportunity to slither to the finish as sixth. The Horse followed behind in seventh.

The rest of the animals were less hasty to get to the end. The Goat (also known as the Sheep or Ram), Monkey, and Rooster made it to the finish line as eighth, ninth, and tenth, respectively. The Goat was regarded as polite and the Monkey swung between trees while the Rooster found a safe way to get across the water. Meanwhile, the Dog was late to the race, so, despite being a good swimmer, it placed eleventh. And finally, because it stopped for food along the way, the Pig was the last to arrive at the finish, hence why pigs are seen as “lazy.”

And so, the race came to an end and the animals were placed in the lunar calendar according to the order they came in. The sequence of zodiacs starts with the Rat and ends with the Pig. After the Pig, the order repeats itself.

This origin story has been maintained for over 2000 years and will continue to be a household tale for many generations to come. While it may not be as well known as the zodiac signs we commonly associate with (i.e.: Capricorn, Sagittarius, etc.), it gives us another way to explain our most prominent characteristics and the fascinating events that happen in our lives.