Friday, February 4, 2011

Slow but sure campaign for the tortoise

Nature photo courtesy of Stony Creek Metropark.
It's true. For most of us in North America, our understanding of Chinese astrology and Chinese zodiac doesn't extend beyond what we gleaned from the paper placemats in our favorite Chinese restaurants.

But that doesn’t take away from our interest in the legends and mythology associated with Chinese culture. It's quite the opposite, especially when it comes to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, which includes a rat, buffalo (ox), tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. How many times have we sat in a booth discovering what sign we were born under and whether we really fit the bill? Are you as cautious as a rabbit or brave like the tiger? One of the questions that might have come up is who decided what 12 animals would appear on the calendar. The hare made the list, why not the tortoise too?

Apparently there are plenty of legends explaining it, but one of the most well-known and interesting has to do with a race that was officiated by Buddha.

"Buddha invited the animals to participate in a race. The prize was a coveted position on the Chinese Zodiac calendar. The first 12 animals to cross the river would appear on the Chinese Zodiac calendar in the order in which they completed the race," according to the story reported by Chinese Zodiac.

Legend has it the first to cross was the rat. While surprising, considering its size and the other contenders, the legend claims the rat used its brain rather than brawn and hitched a ride on what it perceived was the mightiest swimmer.
Was it the horse? The snake?

AP File Photo/Damian Dovarganes
The rabbit met Buddha’s challenge.
 Nope. The buffalo reached the shore first, but the rat jumped off the buffalo's back and crossed the finish line before everyone else, putting it at the top of Buddha's list, followed by the buffalo, tiger (cats can swim if they have to) and rabbit, which was helped during the last stretch by the dragon.

The sneaky, creepy snake hid in the hoof of the horse, letting it do all of the work in crossing the river. Legend has it that just before the horse landed on the shore, the snake jumped out and slithered to shore, spooking the horse into seventh place.

Right behind them were the sheep, monkey and rooster, earning their spots on the calendar by helping one another make it across. The dog, caring more for the bath it was getting in the river, took its time but eventually crossed in 11th place. According to this legend, the pig feasted and rested halfway through the race, but endured at the end, securing its position on the calendar.

That's not the end of the story.

According to another legend after the race all of the winners were invited to join Buddha at either a birthday celebration, a New Year celebration, or a celebration for his departure from this world. We know which one they chose.  

Is it your lucky year? Birth years for the rabbit zodiac sign include: 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023.

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