There are many legends and mythology related to Chinese zodiac and there are various versions and stories popular in different regions. Why were there twelve animals in the zodiac calendar and how did the scheme order come from? Here are the most well-know stories, as an important part of Chinese zodiacal culture.
The Order of the Animals
This is the most widespread legend about Chinese zodiac. The Jade Emperor (The Emperor in Heaven in Chinese folklore) ordered that animals would be designated as calendar signs and the twelve that arrived first would be selected. At that time, the cat and the rat were good friends and neighbors. When they heard of this news, the cat said to the rat: 'We should arrive early to sign up, but I usually get up late.' The rat then promised to awaken his friend and go together. However, on the morning when he got up, he was too excited to recall his promise, and went directly to the gathering place. On the way, he encountered the tiger, ox, horse, and other animals that ran much faster. In order not to fall behind them, he thought up a good idea. He made the straightforward ox carry him on condition that he sang for the ox. At last, the ox and him arrived first. The ox was happy thinking that he would be the first sign of the years, but the rat had already slid in front, and became the first lucky animal of the Chinese zodiac. Meanwhile his neighbor the cat was too late so when it finally arrived, the selection was over. That's why other animals appear behind the little rat and why the cat hates the rat so much that every time they meet, the cat will chase and kill it.
About this simple story, there are different editions. Some say it was the Yellow Emperor who intended to select twelve guards. It is also said that cat hope rat could get there early and sign up on behalf, but rat completely forgot it or do that intentionally. Some say the animals were request to have a swimming race, or a simple race. Elephant was said to participate in the race too, but run away finally because rat got into it trunk.
The Number of Zodiac Animals’ Toes
Many famous scholars in history had their own interpretations about this interesting topic. There was a scholar in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) called Hong Xun explained his thought based on Yin Yang Theory. Among the twelve animals - rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig - rat, tiger, dragon, monkey and dog have five toes. Five is an odd number which is thought to be in yang side (or positive). Horse has one toe, also an odd number. Others animals have toes of even numbers which are thought to be yin, negative. Snake has no toe but its tongue has two tips in even number. Ying and yang animal signs were interlaced. There were scholars of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) followed and developed this idea.
Why Did Rat Come in the First Place?
Beside the tricks that rat played in the first story, there are other legends about its priority in those animals. In Chinese mythology about the origin of world, the universe was in dark without form like an egg before the earth and heaven was separated. It was the rat that bit a crack and let the air in. He was the hero to start the world. That was to say the importance of him. Another saying goes along with the toes story mentioned above. His forepaws have four toes and hindpaws have five toes, with both odd and even numbers. For such a special creature among the twelve animals, rat won the first place.
Legends seem to be strained interpretations because the original intention had been lost over such a long history. Chinese zodiac was related to the Yin Yang, Five Elements theories and other traditional life concepts. Thus it promoted the development of Chinese zodiacal culture. After having fun of reading these stories, we still have to know some facts: it is reliable to believe the zodiac animals started for worship of animals in old times and twelve most important animals in ancient people’s life in was selected to vividly represent the Twelve Earthly Branches (the duodecimal cycle in Chinese calendar). Cat was absent in the name list because there was no cat in China very long time ago.