The Chinese Legend of How the Animals Gave Their Names to the Years

by Cie McCullough Buschle on January 15, 2011

in Arts and Culture

The Chinese years have interesting animal names, instead of boring numbers like Western years, but there are only twelve animals that have the honor of having a year named after them. However, there is a strict order to these animals, and every twelve years the order starts all over again.

Animals for the Chinese Years鼠 rat (or mouse)   牛 water buffalo (or buffalo, cow, ox)   虎 tiger   兎 rabbit (or hare)   龍 dragon   蛇 snake   馬 horse   羊 goat (or ram, sheep)   猿 monkey   鶏 rooster   狗 dog   豬 boar (or pig)

There is a legend in China that says the order is how the animals finished in a race. But how did a rat ever beat a dragon? or a snake beat a horse? or a rooster beat a dog? and why is there no cat? A quick retelling of the legend can tell us.

One year the Jade Emperor called all the animals together. However, if you are a Buddhist, then Buddha called them all together. The animals agreed to participate in a race in order to determine who would have a year named after them, and in what order the years would occur on the calendar. But the race would be very hard, and before the finish line all animals had to cross a river.

At this time the cat and the rat will the very best of friends, and it was well known that everything they did, they did together. They agreed they would compete as one, but neither of them could swim!. Before the race began, they asked the water buffalo if he would give them a ride across the river, and he agreed. Now we all know that cats are afraid of water, and when the water buffalo was away from the shore she grew so afraid that she slipped and fell in with a splash. Her friend the rat looked back at her, but was so intent on winning did not ask his ride to stop.

As the water buffalo came to the finish line, the rat slid down his big nose and scampered to the finish line to be named the fist year. The water buffalo lumbered up, with a quick glower at the rat, to come in second. Next was the tiger, who was an excellent swimmer but had slept in the sun a little too late in the morning and had gotten a late start. Then everyone heard a great bound and the rabbit, crossing the river in one leap, was named the fourth year. With a roar from the sky the great dragon flew down from the sky. Chinese dragons are water dragons, and this one had to stop and make rain for some farmers who had asked politely.

Then from river came the sound of hooves as the horse galloped across. But just before the finish line the horse shied as the snake slithered off her back, down around her front leg, onto the ground and into sixth place. The horse has the seventh year as hers. The monkey, the rooster and the goat were having great fun as they all paddled a log across the river. When it came time to get off each said “After you”, “No, after you!, “No, I insist, after you!” again and again until all three finally crossed the finish line: goat, then monkey, then rooster.

With loud barking and much splashing the happy dog came ashore, shook himself dry and then ran to and from not caring he came in eleventh, just happy to see all the other animals. Then came the pig, on his short little pig feet, huffing and puffing into last place but still with the twelfth year as his. Since then he has always been called the lazy pig.

But the cat kept at it, struggling in the water, determined to reach the other side. When he finally reached the finish line, he found everyone congratulating the winners, so he slunk away disappointed. Since that time the cat and the rat have been enemies, and the cat has not worked hard for anything.

Buffalo, Rabbit, Dragon

For some great books on this Chinese legend, try out the following:

Cat and Rat by Ed Young

The Great Race






Or, if you are looking for books on the Chinese New Year to share with your child:

Chinese New Year for Kids

Celebrating Chinese New Year






For information about what your birth year might be, check out Of Metal Rabbits and Wood Dragons.


| Cie McCullough Buschle lives with her dog Einstein and a cat named Burton Guster. She is a lifelong traveler and enjoys researching history through holidays, toys, and everyday objects. Cie is a sculptor and co-owns The Creative Chameleon, a place where kids and adults can create, paint, celebrate, and just have a lot of fun. Sometimes you can find her time traveling back to the Middle Ages as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

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