Why Isn’t There a Cat in the Chinese Zodiac?

January 22 is the first day of the Chinese Year of the Rabbit.

Many of you may be familiar with the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. Each animal represents a year in the Chinese calendar’s 12-year cycle.

The animals are ranked in this order: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. According to folklore, their rank was determined by the order in which they finished a race organized by the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven. Did you know the cat could have been in the zodiac?

There are many variations of this tale of betrayal. One version has it that the rat and the cat were besties. They decided to run the race together. The cat kept late hours, so he relied on the rat to wake him up in time for the race. The rat promised he would. On the morning of the event, however, he broke his word and sneaked off without his friend.

The wily rat was well aware that he didn’t stand a chance against the other animals. Everyone expected the strong and hardworking ox to win. The rat ran fast enough to catch up to the ox. He begged the ox to carry him on his shoulders. In return, the rat promised to sing to the ox.

The ox, kindhearted creature that he was, agreed to carry the rat. When they got to the finish line, the rat jumped off the ox’s shoulders and won first place.

The cat woke up after the rat left and rushed off to the race. Because of his late start, he arrived at the finish line after the other animals. Since he came in at 13th place, he didn’t win a spot on the zodiac.

And—so the tale goes—that’s why the cat hates the rat and will kill him on sight.

The truth, though, is more prosaic. Cats are native to Egypt. There were no cats in ancient China. They were brought over from Egypt only during the rule of Emperor Ming from the Han Dynasty (57 CE to 75 CE). By then, the Chinese zodiac was already 1,000 years old.

If you’d like to read other folklore related to Chinese New Year, check out my post from last year. 

Happy Chinese New Year!


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