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 Legends of the Chinese Zodiac Signs

The 12 Zodiac animal signs are, in order, the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep (ram or goat), monkey, rooster, dog and pig. There are many legends to explain the beginning of the zodiac. One of the most popular reads, in summary form, as follows:

The rat was given the task of inviting the animals to report to the Jade Emperor for a banquet to be selected for the zodiac signs. The cat was a good friend of the rat, but the rat did it in the belief that the banquet was the next day. The cat slept through the banquet, thinking it was the next day. When he found out, the cat vowed to be the rat's natural enemy for ages to come.

Not long after that, a little distance away, the ram, monkey and rooster came to the shore. These three creatures helped each other to get where they are. The rooster spotted a raft, and took the other two animals with it. Together, the ram and the monkey cleared the weeds, tugged and folded and finally got the raft to the shore. Because of their combined efforts, the Emperor was very pleased and promptly named the ram as the 8th creature, the monkey as the 9th, and the rooster the 10th.

The 11th animal is the dog. His explanation for being late-though he was supposedly to be the best swimmer among the rest-was that he needed a good bath after a long spell, and the fresh water from the river was too big a temptation. For that, he did not make it to finish line. Just as the Emperor was about to call it a day, an oink and squeal was heard from a little pig. The pig got hungry during the race, promptly stopped for a fever and then fell sleep. After the nap, the pig continued the race and was named the 12th and last animal of the Zodiac cycle. The cat finished too late (thirteenth) to win any place in the calendar, and vowed to be the enemy of the rat forevermore.

Some versions of the tale say that the cattle nominated a water buffalo to represent them because he was more profitable at swimming. The trade was acceptable because both animals are bovines.

Another version of the tale expands the race. The route ran through a forest, across ranges of plains and grasslands and along a stream, before finally crossing a lake to the destination town.

Yet another variation from Spiritual Ideas tells of two different races. The first involved all the animals, in two divisions to avoid the fast animals dominating the top, and the top six in each division would "make the cut" for a second round, which would then determine the order of placement of the animals in the zodiac.

In another variation, each animal was called before its peers and had to explain why it deserved a position at the top of the Zodiac. The Boar, at a loss, proceeded to claim that the meat on its bones "tasted good". This explanation was apparently considered unsatisfactory because the Boar was placed at the very end of the Zodiac.

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