The Year of the Rat – from the Beginning

January 20201

By Susan Birkenshaw

As I grew up, one of my not-so-secret pleasures was to read my daily horoscope.  I often would have my tea leaves read or go to the card reader at the fall fair, and I even tried to figure out what the Chinese Zodiac might mean to me.  I remember that I was often surprised about just how “close and similar” the results seemed to be.  As a kid, I would try to live my life (for maybe a couple of days) based on the results of each event.  Ultimately, not a sensible path!

Over the years I also spent many busy, noisy and controversial dinners with my family.  At its largest, the dinner table sat – 3 Dragons (me), 3 Tigers, one each of Rabbit, Dog, Sheep, Rooster and Horse.  With no rats at my dinner table, at the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Rat, I wonder who and where they were?!

Over time, I “learned” to enjoy the entertainment value and move on. While that didn’t mean I simply ignored the potential impact, over time I started to wonder just how these “teachings” had such a history and such a major impact on the lives of so many people around the world.   

In particular, the Chinese Zodiac has been an important factor in most Chinese culture for over 2,000 Years.  Twelve animals, 12 days and finally down to 12 hours times 2 – this originally led to a simple way of telling time and identifying important times in history.  Now, it is often the basis of relationships, baby creation times and business decisions.  Many believe that while the fables are simple and consistent, the basics remain constant and must have some basis in history and reality.

There are twelve members of the Chinese Zodiac.  Eleven of these are from the animal kingdom and one is a fantasy creature (dragon).  While not all possible animals are represented, the most enduring myth or fable about the origin of the official Chinese Zodiac originates around the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD).  It tells us why some seem to be missing.

The fable most often told begins with the Jade Emperor. He wanted to invite 12 animals to be his new sentries.  After sending his invitations far and wide to any member of the Animal Kingdom, a great race began.  It was established that the first across the finish line would be first in rank and so on throughout his new corps of 12 guardians. Oddly, enough, 12 contestants showed up at the start line.  The race would finish on the far side of a great river before the heavenly gate of the Jade emperor’s abode.  

The rat and the cat were not great swimmers, but they were both very intelligent. They decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hop on the back of the ox. The ox, being kindhearted and naïve, had no objections. Just as the ox reached the shore of the river, the rat shoved the cat into the water, leapt off the head of the ox, and rushed up to the Jade Emperor. The rat was named as the first animal of the zodiac calendar, the ox had to accept second place, and the cat never placed at all.

The tiger came in third. Even though he was strong and powerful, he explained to the Jade Emperor that the river currents had slowed him down.

Next, “thump, thump,” and from the distance the rabbit came bounding up.  He explained that he started crossing by jumping from one stone to another, but he slipped about halfway through.  A floating log passed by and the rabbit jumped aboard.  The log was rushing downstream but mysteriously dropped the rabbit on the shore in just the right place.  Thus did the rabbit become the fourth animal in the Zodiac cycle.

In fifth place came the flying dragon, but the Jade Emperor queried the dragon as to why, if he was so swift and never had to enter the river, he  did not come in first.  The dragon explained that he had had to stop at a drought-plagued village and bring rain to the the people. Then, right near the finish, he saw the rabbit clinging to the log, so the dragon puffed a bit so the log brought the poor rabbit to shore.  The Jade Emperor was surprised and pleased by the dragon’s good nature, and named him the fifth animal.

Next, from afar they heard a galloping sound, and the horse came into view.  But coiled around the front leg of the horse was the snake, which leaped out across the finish line, startling the horse.  The horse fell back and the snake came in sixth while the horse placed seventh.

A bit later, the goat, the monkey, and the rooster arrived at the Heavenly Gate.  They had worked together to cross the river.  The rooster found a raft, and the monkey and the goat tugged and pulled all the river weeds out of the way. Of course, they had to run from the shore up to the Heavenly Gate, so the goat was number eight, followed by the monkey and then the rooster. The Jade Emperor was much pleased by their teamwork.

The dog was the eleventh animal placed in the zodiac cycle.  Although his swimming and running skills were excellent, the dog (not surprisingly, spent his time playing in the water. He explained to the Jade Emperor that he needed a good bath before arriving at the finish line, and that was why he was late.

Just when the Jade Emperor was going to call the race, even with only eleven finishers, an “oink” sound was heard, and there came the pig.  The pig had, of course, felt hungry in the middle of the race, so he stopped, ate something, and then fell asleep. He woke up and continued on, finishing the race in twelfth place, becoming final animal in the cycle.

Knowing the origin of the Zodiac Cycle, we can dig a little deeper to learn that each of the Zodiac animals has five separate elements: wood, water, earth, fire, and metal (or gold).  However, this takes us into mathematical calculations that many of us may choose to take to the experts.  There are many charts and outlines to follow or mathematical equations that will help you identify your own element.  

Following one of these charts, I determined that I am Water Dragon. Apparently, this means that I have the ability to be more reflective, calm and intuitive than my more “out there” dragon sisters (when necessary).  All of this to say, the Chinese Zodiac is a tool for life planning that can be considered when creating something new or planning a new adventure.  

It is not as slavishly adhered to as it once was; in the times of the early emperors, marriages, other relationships, birth months and even good times for war were determined by auspicious times as decreed by the Zodiac.  With its long history and cultural impact today, this tool is nothing to be laughed at.  Simply another approach to your life pondering.

Here are two simple and useful sites for you to consider in you first forays into the Chinese Zodiac: or