In the olden days, China was largely an agricultural country. People did not know how to keep count of years or months, and so, they asked the Jade Emperor (玉帝) for guidance. The emperor mused that the lives of men are linked with that of animals. If 12 kinds of animals were selected to represent each year, the people would find it easy to remember.
But, there were so many animals, how was he to choose just 12? The emperor decided to hold a race on land and water on his birthday. The first 12 animals to reach the goal would each be designated a year in the calendar.
When news of the race spread, the animals discussed the event among themselves, each hoping to win the race.
During those times, the cat and the rat were the best of friends. They slept together and were inseparable.
The rat said: “I really want to win the race and become part of the 12 signs, but I’m small and I can’t swim, what am I to do?”
Said the cat: “Since we are small, and cannot run fast, we have to start earlier. I know that the water buffalo (ox) usually wakes up before the crack of dawn. On the day of the race, let us invite him to wake us up, maybe then we could be ahead in the race.”
The rat clapped his hands delightedly and said: “Fine, very good, that’s what we’ll do!”
Before the sun touched the sky on the emperor’s natal day and even before the rooster’s call to a new day, the kindly ox woke up the friends who were still sleepy.
The ox laughingly said: “You two look so lost and confused, might as well climb on my back and we’ll start together.”
The rat and the cat then huddled on the wide back of the ox and settled back to sleep. When they awoke, daylight has just appeared, and they had reached the riverside.
The cat stretched himself and said happily: “After we cross the river, we’ll reach our goal. It looks like we three will be first.”
“Yes, you are right,” said the rat, but secretly he thought: “We are no doubt ahead of the others, but how do I arrive first?”
Selfish and cunning, the rat had a wicked idea. When the ox swam to the middle of the river, the rat cuddled close to the cat, and said affectionately: “Elder brother cat, look how beautiful the scenery is!”
“Truly, it is beautiful!” The cat, as expected, looked around.
Taking the opportunity, the rat heartlessly gave the cat a big push, and it splashed into the river. The ox, feeling that his back’s burden lightened, turned around for a look and discovered that many animals had one after another began crossing the river. The ox anxiously quickened his pace, and did not notice that the cat had fallen in the water.
In a flash, the ox had crossed the river. It looked as if it will get the first place, and he felt happy. Suddenly, the rat jumped from its back and quickly ran forward. It reached the goal first.
When the Jade Emperor saw the rat first, he wondered, “Rat, you can’t swim or run fast, how is it that you arrived here first?”
The rat triumphantly said: “I may be small, but I’m clever, naturally, I won first place!”
After a while, the ox arrived and got second place. But he kept mooing at the rat in a very unsatisfactory manner.
Shortly after, the tiger, his body wet, came swiftly and confidently asked: “Am I the first?”
“No, I’m the first, your sole dependence on your strength is of no use at all!” the rat rudely answered the tiger, which sparked a verbal quarrel between the two.
Suddenly, there was a powerful gust of wind, and the dragon appeared from the sky.
Just before the dragon could touch the goal, a little rabbit quickly thumped his way and stopped before the Jade Emperor, and got the fourth place.
The emperor wondered why the rabbit who could not swim came ahead of the dragon who could fly. The rabbit recounted how he jumped from one animal’s back to another to cross the river.
“I could have arrived earlier, but I was delayed because I had to head east to disperse rain,” the dragon explained. The dragon was responsible for the coming rains and his sense of responsibility prodded him to perform his task first.
Shortly after, neighing was heard but before the horse reached the finish line, a big snake crawled out from the grass to the emperor’s feet.
The big snake’s arrival caused a commotion and the rat and the rabbit, frightened, crouched into hiding.
The snake, who usually enjoyed devouring rats and rabbits, addressed the two: “I came here today expressly to join the emperor’s race. Rest easy, I won’t eat you.”
Just then the horse arrived and inquired gaily: “What place do I get?”
“The seventh place, your luck’s not bad,” replied the rat.
Not long after, the mountain goat, the monkey and the rooster arrived. “Ah, how come the three of you arrived together?” asked the rat.
The mountain goat slowly replied, “The three of us helped each other row across the river on a piece of log.”
After them came the dog. He was supposed to have arrived earlier, but because he played, bathed in the river and wasted time in the process, he was only able to garner the 11th place.
The race was fast coming to its end and all the victorious animals wanted to find out which one will arrive last.
Then, they heard the pig’s voice. How could the pig, known for its laziness, come to the race?
“Is there anything good to eat?” asked the pig.
Everyone laughed heartily when they heard the question, and said: “He’s really a glutton!” The pig still placed 12th in rank.
The Jade Emperor solemnly announced the outcome of the race: “The order of ranking of the 12 animals is: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake…”
Before he could finish, the cat arrived. He was wet and seemed to have come from a difficult situation. Upon arriving, he anxiously asked: “What rank am I?”
Jade Emperor kindly said: “You are too late, there’s no more place for you.”
When the cat heard this, he was very angry, and shouted: “It’s all that hateful rat’s fault, I will eat him.” So saying, he reached out with his sharp claws. The rat realized it had wronged the cat. It was ashamed and afraid and scurried under the emperor’s seat.
Although the rat won first place in the race, and ranked first in the order of zodiac signs, he nevertheless was always on tenterhooks and went in fear of the cat’s seeking revenge.
From that time on, the rat need only see the cat’s shadow, and he would scamper away for his life. Even in the light of day, the rat is forced to hide in a hole, unable to come out, plagued as it is with a guilty conscience.
Editor’s note: This account is adapted and translated from Chinese folk tales
by Grace Pe-Bacani.