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The Great Race

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Ares, the sheep--the first sign of the Western zodiac that begins with the vernal equinox.
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The Chinese zodiac--an animal to each year rather than to a month.
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The first animal in the twelve-year cycle --the rat who won the race to the Jade Emperor—perhaps by deception.
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Chinese zodiac set-- stamped celluloid mounted in wood.
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Chinese zodiac set—carved and colored bone ball buttons.
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Chinese zodiac set—carved and colored bone ball buttons.

“What is your sign?” This was the dating phrase of the 70s. Of course, it referred to the sun signs of the western zodiac and the associated astrology. However, even before the Babylonians developed the celestial month signs, the Chinese had developed a celestial arrangement based on the year. The assignment of an animal—rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, horse, snake, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig—to a twelve-month year. How was each animal assigned from first month to twelfth? A fable explains the decision of the Jade Emperor.

The Great Race

A folk story tells that Cat and Rat were the worst swimmers in the animal kingdom. Although they were poor swimmers, they were both quite intelligent. To get to the meeting called by the Jade Emperor, they had to cross a river to reach the meeting place. The Jade Emperor had also decreed that the years on the calendar would be named for each animal in the order they arrived to the meeting. Cat and Rat decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hop on the back of Ox. Ox, being naïve and good-natured, agreed to carry them both across. Midway across the river, Rat pushed Cat into the water. Then as Ox neared the other side of the river, Rat jumped ahead and reached the shore first. So he claimed first place in the competition and the zodiac.

Following closely behind was strong Ox who was named the second animal in the zodiac. After Ox, came Tiger, panting, while explaining to the Jade Emperor how difficult it was to cross the river with the heavy currents pushing it downstream all the time. But with its powerful strength, Tiger made it to shore and was named the third animal in the cycle.

Suddenly, from a distance came a thumping sound, and the Rabbit arrived. It explained how it crossed the river: by jumping from one stone to another in a nimble fashion. Halfway through, it almost lost the race, but the Rabbit was lucky enough to grab hold of a floating log that later washed him to shore. For that, it became the fourth animal in the Zodiac cycle. In fifth place was the Flying Dragon. Of course, the Jade Emperor was deeply curious as to why a swift flying creature such as the Dragon should fail to reach first place. The mighty Dragon explained that he had to stop and make rain to help all the people and creatures of the earth, and therefore he was held back. Then, on his way to the finish, he saw a little helpless Rabbit clinging onto a log, so he did a good deed and gave a puff of breath to the poor creature so that it could land on the shore. The Jade Emperor was very pleased with the actions of the Dragon, and he was added into the zodiac cycle. As soon as he had done so, a galloping sound was heard, and the Horse appeared. Hidden on the Horse's hoof was the Snake, whose sudden appearance gave the Horse a fright, thus making it fall back and giving the Snake the sixth spot, while the Horse placed seventh.

Not long after that, a little distance away, the Goat, Monkey, and Rooster came to the shore. These three creatures helped each other to get to where they are. The Rooster spotted a raft, and took the other two animals with it. Together, the Goat and the Monkey cleared the weeds, tugged and pulled and finally got the raft to the shore. Because of their combined efforts, the Emperor was very pleased and promptly named the Goat as the eighth creature, the Monkey as the ninth, and the Rooster the tenth.

The eleventh animal was the Dog. Although he was supposed to be the best swimmer, he could not resist the temptation to play a little longer in the river, though his explanation for being late was because he needed a good bath after a long spell. For that, he almost didn't make it to the finish line. Just as the Jade 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 feast and then fell asleep. After the nap, the Pig continued the race and was named the twelfth animal of the zodiac cycle. The Cat finished in thirteenth place and did not make it in the zodiac. It is said that that is the reason why Cats always chase Rats; to get back at them for what they have done.

Chinese zodiac buttons, like those depicting Western zodiacs, are modern—made after 1918, but primarily after 1950.  Made in all materials and collected in sets of 12, competing collectors display sets of three different sets on a card OR one set of extra-large buttons.

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