In Chinese culture, the zodiac system is a cycle of animal signs that repeats every 12 years. As the legend goes, every animal that appear in the zodiac cycle collectively participated in a race, known as the Great Race. The legend of the Great Race is chronicled differently in different parts of the world and many versions of it exists, yet the positions of the twelve animals on the zodiac remain the same.

The Jade Emperor held the Great Race to choose twelve animals who crossed a desert, then a forest, followed by the mountains and the large expanse of the mighty river. As the race would determine an order of the twelve animals, later known as the Zodiac animals, they were told that they would be spread out like beads in a necklace and that each would be given years in their name. The order would be followed for matters of earthly importance. Each Zodiac animal was immortalized in the Chinese Zodiac, followed to date.

People perform the dragon dance during a Chinese Lunar New Year parade in London, Britain Image Source: Xinhua/Han Yan/IANS

People perform the dragon dance during a Chinese Lunar New Year parade in London, Britain

In the order of occurrence on the Chinese Animal Zodiac, there was a cunning rat, a hardworking ox, a restless tiger, a fortunate rabbit, a fiery dragon, a secretive snake, an obstinate horse, a cautious goat, a vain monkey, a brave rooster, a loyal dog, and a reliable pig. The Great Race placed importance not on the winner, but on the order in which they finished the race.

The Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit and the Dragon

In the Great Race, the rat, ox, tiger, and rabbit, along with the dragon, lead the race. The fiery dragon took advantage of its strengths to lead against the rest of the animals. Yet, the selfless dragon offered to help a village from a serious drought. It is said that the dragon flew across the clouds and opened his mouth to make it rain. While he continued to race, he stopped to help another village that suffered from flood. The rest of the clan proceeded to the Jade Gate.

In other versions of the legend, the dragon offered help to some villagers to deal with fiery foxes who stood by the Jade Gate, their mouths reeking of blood. A different version has that the dragon helped some villagers when a deadly fire caught their fields.

Chinese Animal Dragon Image Source: Prokerala

Chinese Animal Dragon

The rat was the cleverest of them all. The rat knew that the fastest way to reach the Jade Gate was to climb on top of the ox. The hardworking ox offered to carry the rat across the river. As they reached the shore, the rat jumped off the ox and reached the gate first, thus being the first on the zodiac cycle. The ox reached the gate second.

Chinese Animals Ox and Rat Image Source: Prokerala

Chinese Animals Ox and Rat

The tiger and the rabbit had no easy way but to trudge on their own. They had their fair share of challenges to reach the end point. The tiger as optimistic of its vigor and speed, and was certain that no other animals would win the race before the tiger. However, the tiger had to settle for the third place.

The Rabbit was too proud of its speed, wit and potential to win the race. It mocked and looked down upon the ox because it was slow. The story goes that the rabbit stopped in between the race to take a nap. Due to its poor sense of direction, the rabbit took a couple of wrong turns too. By the time the rabbit reached the Jade Gate, three animals had already found their place on the Chinese Zodiac.

The dragon reached fifth.

Chinese Animals Tiger and Rabbit Image Source: Prokerala

Chinese Animals Tiger and Rabbit

The Snake and the Horse

The moment the race commenced, the snake insinuated itself around the horse's neck, who galloped as fast as it could toward the gate. The secretive snake suggested that they run together like wind and that it would guide the horse and be its eyes in the dark. The horse, however, took a wrong edge through the woods into the dark despite what the snake said.

They passed through a cemetery and the horse hesitated for most part of the journey. It passed through the cemetery with its eyes closed. The horse, however, took momentum soon after they passed the cemetery.

This made them finish sixth and seventh in the race.

Chinese Animals Horse and Snake Image Source: Prokerala

Chinese Animals Horse and Snake

The Goat, The Monkey, and The Rooster

The goat, monkey, and rooster raced together, and their story defines teamwork. The goat and the monkey offered to help the rooster, who could not swim to cross the river. The rooster found a raft while both the monkey and the goat cleared their way of all weeds, and they reached the gate together. The impressed Emperor named the goat the eighth, the monkey the ninth, and the rooster the tenth to finish the race.

Chinese Animals Monkey, Rooster and Goat Image Source: Prokerala

Chinese Animals Monkey, Rooster and Goat

The Dog and the Pig

When the race began, the dog made its leap to win the race, but the pig was stout and loaded to move forward. The loyal dog prized their friendship over the Great Race, willing to trudge alongside the pig, even if it meant it would earn him nothing better than the eleventh position. The pig, eternally grateful, assured him to keep him fed. As the tale goes, the dog and the pig finished last in the race.

Chinese Animals Pig and Dog Image Source: Prokerala

Chinese Animals Pig and Dog

Variations of the Legend

The legend of the Great Race has been chronicled and believed in multiple versions. While there is no particular storyline, the idea, the order, and some of the characteristics revealed of the twelve Zodiac Animals remain the same.

  • In some versions, it is Buddha, and not the Jade Emperor who holds the race
  • While the river is the main part of the story, there are versions of the race that do not mention of it at all.
  • In some versions of the legend, it is known that the dragon, while it raced to the gate, saw the rabbit being chased by a wolf. The dragon did not hesitate to handle the wolf to save the rabbit, and let to rabbit win the fourth place.
  • There was a thirteenth animal, the cat, that is believed to have hopped on the ox along with the rat to reach the Jade Gate. As the story goes, the rat pushed the cat into the river on the way, and the cat never made it to the finish line. It is believed that cats still hold the grudge against rats, and they are still scared of the river.
  • The Vietnamese version has that the cat makes to the race and finishes in place of the rabbit. It also states that instead of the ox, it is a buffalo that takes the second place on the zodiac.
  • In some stories, its is believed that the goat competed with another animal, a deer. The deer who could not swim through the river, gave up on the race, and the goat remained determined to complete the race.
  • In some stories, the finish line is not the Jade Gate, but the Heaven's Gate, and the race was to reach the Heaven first.

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