How the animals in the Chinese Zodiac were chosen

A long time ago, Jade Emperor decided to create a calendar in order to keep track of time. He decided to create a cyclical calendar of 12 years, and that each year would be named after an animal. To determine which 12 animals would be featured, he organised a race and invited every animal to participate. The first twelve across the line would be included in the calendar. This is the story of how the 12 animals were chosen.

Cat and Mouse were best friends who both wanted to enter the race (Li 2014). They were advised to arrive early because so many animals were interested in participating that not all of them would be able to fit in the race. Cat loved to sleep and was worried that he would miss the race so he asked Mouse to wake him early the next morning.

On the day of the race, Mouse was in a very happy mood when he woke Cat. Cat asked why Mouse looked so happy and Mouse replied that he had just run the race and won. Also, it might be too late for Cat to enter now. Since then, Cat and Mouse have been enemies.

Part of the race involved crossing a river and many animals were frightened because they could not swim. Mouse jumped on the back of Water Buffalo who was the strongest swimmer and so crossed the river first. Water Buffalo was about to win the race and have the first year named after him, but at the last moment, Mouse jumped off his back and crossed the finish line first (Li 2014). This is why people who are born in the Year of the Mouse are said to be cunning.

2018 Year of the Dog decorations at Changi Airport in Singapore.

Another version of the story says that Cat and Mouse entered the race together and were tied for first place for most of the time (Wang 2013). When they reached the river, they both jumped on Water Buffalo’s back and urged him on. Halfway across the river, Mouse sabotaged Cat by pushing him into the river because Mouse knew that Cat hated water (Wang 2013). Since then, Cat and Mouse have been bitter enemies.

Close behind Mouse and Water Buffalo were Tiger and Rabbit (Chang 1994). They were both fast runners and had been neck and neck for most of the race. When they reached the river, Tiger did not hesitate and jumped straight in. He was a powerful swimmer but his wet coat weighed him down so he finished the race third, just after Water Buffalo (Landes-Gilman 2015).

Although Rabbit had kept up with Tiger for most of the race, when they reached the river, Rabbit hesitated because he did not think that he was strong enough to swim against the current (Landes-Gilman 2015). Instead, he jumped from stone to stone and then found a log to float on. The log moved slowly across the river and Rabbit feared that he would not be included in the zodiac when suddenly, a gust of wind blew the log over the river and Rabbit became the fourth animal to finish the race (Landes-Gilman 2015).

Yellow and orange flowers are used in Chinese New Year decorations to symbolise prosperity.

Next, Dragon appeared from among the clouds and claimed the fifth spot (Chang 1994). Jade Emperor had been sure that the Dragon would win the race and asked what took him so long. Dragon said that he had seen a village on fire and couldn’t bear to not render assistance. Therefore, he had interrupted his race to blow the flames out (Landes-Gilman 2015). Then he saw Rabbit working so hard to finish the race and decided to give him a helping hand by blowing him across the river (Landes-Gilman 2015).

Snake and Horse began the race by tying for first place (Lin 2014). At one point, Horse accidentally kicked Snake all the way to the back of the line so she had to work extra hard to overtake the other animals again. Toward the end of the race, Horse had fallen back to fifth position. She was about to claim this spot when Snake slithered ahead of her and pipped her to the post. This is how Snake and Horse earned the fifth and sixth spots respectively in the Chinese Zodiac.

Billy, the silly Goat heard about the race and suggested that one of the goats should enter to represent their species. The other goats laughed at the latest of Billy’s silly ideas and said ‘goats are gentle creatures and have no business running with other bigger, fiercer creatures’ (Lin 2015a). Goat decided to enter the race anyway and kept a reasonable pace. He, Monkey and Rooster reached the river at the same time and all hesitated because none of them could swim (Lin 2015b). Rooster spotted a big log and suggested that they float across the river on it. They all jumped on the log and crossed the river in the order of Goat, Monkey and Rooster, thus becoming the eighth, ninth and tenth animals of the Chinese Zodiac (Lin 2015a).

As Billy returned home, he was thirsty and drank from a pool in the forest. Suddenly, his two horns disappeared and were replaced with a single horn. He had unknowingly drunk from the Wisdom Spring and had become the wisest goat of all (Lin 2015a). The next time the goats were attacked by a wolf, Billy knew what to do. He instructed the other goats to work together and use their horns to fight off the wolf. He ordered the goats to form three circles with the billy goats in the outside, the nanny goats on the inside and the baby goats in the middle. The goats successfully fought off the wolf and since then, no one called Billy silly every again. Instead, he was acknowledged as the One-Horned Wise Goat (Lin 2015a).

Naughty Monkey was the biggest and strongest of the monkeys and so became the Monkey King (Lin 2015b). He entered the race and swung from branch to branch so quickly that everyone thought he would win. When he reached the river, he could not cross it because he could not swim and so waited to board a log with Rooster and Goat. Naughty Monkey was disappointed that he finished the race in ninth place, so when he returned home to the river of Huai, he broke the damn and caused a flood (Lin 2015b).

Naughty Monkey was swept away by the flood and as he struggled against it, he realised that not only could he swim, but he could also control water. He used his new power to create big winds which pushed great waves and created floods. Da Yu, the lord of the floods, was angered by this so he decided to catch Naughty Monkey. Da Yu tied Naughty Monkey up with a chian and put a bronze bell in his nose before hiding him in the Turtle Mountain by the river of Huai.

One day a fisherman found one end of the chain and pulled it up. Naughty Monkey rose from the water and he was very angry. He started to rage when suddenly, Buddha appeared and said ‘you naughty monkey, you must learn to control your temper. You should read wise books and follow me’.  Naughty Monkey did as he was told and since then, he has transformed into one of the four Magic Monkeys of Buddha (Lin 2015b).

When Rooster said the he would like to enter the race, the other chickens

2018 Year of the Dog decorations at Changi Airport in Singapore.

laughed at him and said that he could neither run fast nor fly properly but he ignored them and entered the race anyway (Lin 2015c). Rooster did well and placed tenth in the race.  When he returned home, he thought everyone would be pleased to see him and would congratulate him, but he returned to find everyone sweltering under 10 suns. This was because the 10 sun brothers had shown up to watch the race and refused to leave (Lin 2015c).

When Jade Emperor heard about this, he sent Ho Yi, his best archer, to shoot nine of the ten sun out of the sky. Ho Yi was successful in his task, but the tenth sun who saw all of this was frightened and went into hiding. The world began to grow colder and colder without the sun.  Many animals tried to call the sun back but it didn’t work. Finally, Rooster used his loud clear voice to call the sun. The sun heard his friendly cries and returned (Lin 2015c). Daylight and warmth return once more, and Rooster was celebrated as a hero on the farm.

Dog kept a good pace for most of the race and was an adapt swimmer. However, because he had not bathed in some time and the weather was fine, he became distracted and began playing in the river. When he finally refocussed on the task at hand, he crossed the finish line in eleventh place (Landes-Gilman 2015).

The twelfth animal to cross the finish line was Pig. Jade Emperor wondered why such a fast animal did not finish in a better position (Landes-Gilman 2015). Pig said that she was hungry and had stopped for regular snacks. After snacking, she began to feel tired and fell asleep on the river bank (Wang 2013; Landes-Gilman 2015). Luckily for her, the current picked her up and carried her down the river and over the finish line, thus rounding off the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac.



Chang, M 1994, Trans. Charlette R, Story of the Chinese Zodiac, Yuan-Liou Publishing Company, Taiwan

Landes-Gilman, R 2015, The Great Race: The Origin of the Chinese Zodiac, Panchamama Alliance, viewed 12 January 2018,

Li, YC 2014, How Mouse Gave His Name to the First Year, Snowflake Books, Oxford

Lin, X 2014, Daughters of the Land God, Snowflake Books, Oxford

Lin, X 2015a, Silly Billy The Wise Goat, Snowflake Books, Oxford

Lin, X 2015b, Naughty Monkey, Snowflake Books, Oxford

Lin X 2015c, Big Red Rooster, Snowflake Books, Oxford

Wang, G 2013, The Race for the Chinese Zodiac, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts


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