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Zodiac origin stories

http://www.chinese.cn 15:22, October 22, 2010 chinaculture.org

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Interestingly, the cat does make it into the Vietnamese Zodiac, in place of the rabbit (see below). The Vietnamese story is somewhat similar to that story of Chinese, but with a different ending:

Jade Emperor  held a race to the heaven to choose twelve animals to represent years. Rat and cat, at that time, are good friends, so they went together. When they met a river, the rat told the buffalo running behind to take them over. Then, the rat pushed the cat down the river. Luckily, the cat could swim and get back to the race. Then when the buffalo with the rat on his back nearly went to the finish point, the rat jumped down and became the first, the buffalo became the second. The unlucky cat became the forth, after the tiger. From then, cats hate waters, and rats.

Another popular story was when the Jade Emperor told the animals that he would be using animals to represent the years. So when the rat heard about this, he went straight to his best friend the cat. At once the cat thought "I should have a rest so that I will be in my best form to run to the signing post." So the cat asked the rat to wake him up when the day came. So he agreed. When the day came, the rat realized that he probably wouldn't get to the signing post as fast as the others so instead of waking the cat he left him sleeping.

Whilst going running, the rat met up with the ox. He thought to himself "Ox is the fastest, strongest animal!" So the little mouse played a trick on the ox. He asked the ox if he would like to listen to him sing. The rat opened his mouth but said nothing. "How was that?" he asked the ox and of course he replied "Sorry little rat, I didn't hear you." The rat told the ox to let him jump onto his back so that he could sing it more clearly, and the ox agreed. Soon without knowing, the ox was walking to the signing post, forgetting the rat on his back. When they reached there, the mouse jumped off and claimed first place. The ox following and the rest.

When the cat woke up and found out about this, he was furious. He swore that he would always hate the rat. They were enemies from then on.

In Buddhism, legend has it that Buddha summoned all of the animals of the earth to come before him before his departure from this earth, but only twelve animals actually came to bid him farewell. To reward the animals who came to him, he named a year after each of them. The years were given to them in the order they had arrived.

The legend of the Zodiac Race, of course, is by far the least credible of all explanations of the origin of the Chinese zodiac. Because the "twelve earthly branches" which correspond with the zodiac, was already in existence as early as the Zhou era, long before the advent of Buddhism. A parallel decimal set of symbols called "ten heavenly stems", corresponding with yin-yang dualism and the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) was in existence in the Shang dynasty as the stems were part of Shang rulers' names. The order of 12 Chinese zodiac animals was based on the number of toes/hooves, alternating between even and odd numbers. Rat was the first because unlike other animals of the Chinese zodiac which all had the same number of toes/hooves on each leg, rat has four toes on the front legs and five on the rear legs, so it was selected to be number one. Ox is second with four hooves on each leg, and tiger is the third three with five toes, hare is the fourth with four toes, dragon is next in line with five fingers on its claw, while snake ranks number six because it lacked any legs and zero is an even number, etc.

The Zodiac, or the "twelve earthly branches" is probably devised together with the ten heavenly stems. However, according to Derek Walters, British scholar and author of several related books, there is no historical evidence for the 12 animals correlation with the Earthly Branches prior to the late Tang or early Song eras. Susan Whitfield asserts that it was not until the Qin Dynasty that the 12 animal cycle was imported along the Silk Road from Buddhist peoples in Khotan, Sogdiana, and India.

As a duodecimal numeral system, the twelve earthly branches is probably evidence for trade between early tribes that later contributed to the Chinese civilization on the one hand, and the Mesopotamian civilization, which perfected duodecimal arithmetics, on the other.

The Chinese zodiac, though not entirely identical with the Greek zodiac, nonetheless shares with it the duodecimal system and the idea of using animals as numerical symbols. This is a hint for the triangular relations between early Chinese, Mesopotamian and Greek cultures.

When the Bulgars, an early Turkic tribe within the Hun tribal federation that invaded Europe at the end of the Roman Empire, brought with them the very same Chinese zodiac. This is a probability that the Chinese zodiac is of northern Chinese origin, commonly shared among Altaic and northern Chinese tribes.

Currently, the Thai and Tibetans use the same zodiac with slight modification, probably due to millennia of contact with the Chinese civilization.

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