The Heavenly Gate Race, a Chinese zodiac origin story

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By Su Fen Tan

The Heavenly Gate Race, a Chinese zodiac origin story

How did the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac come to be? Well, legend has it…

One day, the heavenly Jade Emperor decided that time should be segmented into cycles of 12 years, with an earthly animal guarding each cycle. He announced that the first 12 animals to arrive at the Heavenly Gate will earn a place in the zodiac calendar accordingly.

Back then, the Rat and the Cat were good friends and neighbours. The Cat had a tendency to sleep in, but they made a pact to wake each other up early and head to the Heavenly Gate together. On the day of the race, the Rat got up early. However, in its excitement it forgot of the promise and set out by itself.

On its way there, the Rat comes across a fast-flowing river. Unable to cross the river on its own, it had to stop and wait for the other animals to catch up. The Ox was the second to arrive at the river. As it made its way across the swift currents, the quick-witted Rat took the opportunity to jump into the Ox’s ear. The tender-hearted Ox didn’t mind it and simply continued on its way.

Once they got to the shore, the Ox charged off to the palace. It was about to secure victory when the Rat jumped out of the Ox’s ear and dashed to the Jade Emperor’s feet, taking first place while Ox had to settle with second. Competitive and agile, the Tiger claimed third place, followed by the Rabbit, who got across the river by hopping from stone to stone.

The noble Dragon flew in at fifth place, having stopped at a village to help bring rain to desperate farmers on the way. The sixth position looked set to be in the Horse’s favour, as it came galloping in, but the Snake slithered off its front hoof at the last second, relegating the Horse to seventh place.

No swimmers, the Goat, Monkey and Rooster worked together to build a raft to cross the river, coming in eighth, ninth, and tenth respectively. The fun-loving Dog was a good swimmer and runner, but took its time to splash around and take a bath in the river—it still made it at the eleventh spot. Last but not least was the Pig, who sauntered in after taking a nap in the middle of the race to round out the zodiac cycle.

By the time the Cat arrived, the race was over. In another version of the story, it is said that the Rat pushed the Cat into the river while they were crossing it together. Either way, the Cat ultimately failed to make it in the zodiac and held the Rat accountable, birthing the Chinese mythology belief that this is how the two animals became sworn enemies.

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