The Story of the Chinese Zodiac: Why 2020 is the Year of the Rat

Here at uTalk, we’ve spoken a little before about the traditions surrounding the Chinese New Year, which involve all kinds of things, chief among them wearing red, eating a reunion dinner with your family, and not washing your hair. But what about the origins of Chinese New Year—and why are there so many animals involved?

There are several things you might notice if you read anything about the Chinese New Year, but the Chinese zodiac has to be one of the most prominent. The zodiac refers to the animals that each year is named after: this is a twelve-year cycle, beginning with the rat and ending with the pig.

Depending on when you were born, you’ll have a different zodiac animal, which defines your personality and is used to measure your fortune for the upcoming year. This year, 2020, is the Year of the Rat, so that includes those born in 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, and 1960. Those people who are born under the rat sign are said to be quick-witted and resourceful but are content with living quiet and peaceful lives. 

Nice, right? But what do animals have to do with it and where did this all come from?

The Chinese Zodiac Myth

It all begins with a story.

Long ago, the Jade Emperor decreed that the years on the calendar would be named after each animal. He made it a competition—the animals would have to cross a river and the order in which they reached him would define their place in the zodiac.

The animals sprang into action. First came the cat (猫, māo) and the rat (鼠, shǔ)—neither of them were good at swimming. So, instead, they jumped on the back of the ox (牛, niú), who was a strong swimmer, and they were well ahead of the others. The shore was in sight and, with it, the onlooking Jade Emperor.

However, as they approached, the rat pushed the cat from the back of the ox. It fell into the water and the rat jumped from the ox, being the first to reach the Jade Emperor. The ox came in second.

The cat never reached the Emperor and therefore is not included in the zodiac, which is said to be why cats hate water and chase rats!

Next came the tiger (虎, hǔ) and the rabbit (兔, tù), both of whom had difficulty with the currents and the deep water. The dragon (龙, lóng) came after that, which the Jade Emperor found confusing—what had taken an animal that could fly so long? The dragon explained that it had stopped on the way to help a village that needed rain and then, when it had been crossing the river, had seen the struggling rabbit and had blown it onto the shore. The Jade Emperor was pleased with this answer and the dragon took fifth place.

The horse (马, mǎ) approached next—but wasn’t actually the sixth animal! As it reached the shore, the snake (蛇, shé) slithered down from the horse’s hoof and scared it so much that it fell back into the water. The snake came in sixth and then the terrified horse in seventh.

The goat (羊, yáng), monkey (猴, hóu), and rooster (鸡, jī) all arrived together, having helped each other across on a raft; their teamwork pleased the Jade Emperor and he named them the eighth, ninth, and tenth animals.

Finally, the dog (狗, gǒu) arrived. It had been distracted by the river and had spent most of the race playing in the water! Oops. Still, the Jade Emperor was happy it had arrived and awarded it eleventh place.

Twelfth place—the final animal in the zodiac—went to the pig (猪, zhū), who arrived long after all the others, just before the Emperor was about to end the race. Hungry in the middle of the race, the pig had stopped to eat and then had fallen asleep, but had woken up just in time to get there and earn its place!

What about the Year of the Rat?

The amount of good luck you’ll have this year will depend on which animal you fall under on the zodiac. Those that were born in the Year of the Rat, however, are the ones who need to be careful in 2020—traditionally, the year on which your animal falls is one where you’ll have bad luck, as it is thought that entering that year offends Tai Sui, the god of age.

So, we collected some good luck charms that might help all of  you with the rat sign out:

  • Your lucky numbers are two and three—look out for those!
  • Your lucky colours are green, blue, and gold.
  • Your lucky flowers are lilies and African violets.
  • Your lucky directions are west, northwest, and southwest, just in case you were thinking of doing any feng shui.

Hopefully the Year of the Rat will be a prosperous one for everyone reading this. And if you’re celebrating Chinese New Year this weekend, or know someone who is, we have just the thing for you to say!

新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè) Happy New Year!

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