The Legends of Rat, Ox, and Tiger
1. The Legend of Rat
Among the twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac, how was the little rat put in first place? Here is the story.
There is a legend that the Jade Emperor ordered all the animals to come to the celebration of his birthday, and he decided to select twelve kinds of animals as the guards working on the road to heaven according to the sequence the animals came in. These twelve animals would work shifts year by year.
The cat and the rat were neighbors, and they were good friends; they both wanted to register to be selected. But the cat loved sleeping and he was afraid that he would oversleep on the registration day, so he asked the rat to wake him up in the morning. The rat promised: "Don't worry, you can sleep as much as you want, I will wake you up once I get up, and we will go together". However, the rat left alone without waking the cat up on that day.
The ox got up very early too. He met the rat on the road. The ox walked faster with his big size and large steps, while the small-sized rat ran and became out of breath just trying to catch up with the ox. There was still a very long way to go, but the rat was already too tired to continue, so he came up with the idea of asking the ox to carry him: "My dear elder brother, I will sing a song for you". The ox said: "Well, you can do — hey, why aren't you singing?" The rat answered: "I was singing; why didn't you hear it? Oh, my voice was too low to be heard. Well, let me ride on your neck so you can hear it". The ox said "yes" and the rat climbed along the ox's leg up to the ox’s neck. How comfortable it was having the ox carrying him. He swayed his head from side to side and finally began to sing.
Hearing the rat sing, the ox was pleased and began to run harder. No one was there when he arrived at the destination, so he was happy and cried: "I am the first, I am the first!" The ox had not even finished his words when the rat jumped ahead and reached the shore first. So he claimed first place in the competition and the zodiac. The rat ranked first and the ox second. That's why the little rat was the first among those twelve animals.
The cat got up too late because he overslept. When he arrived, the twelve kinds of animals had been selected. Having not been selected, the cat was very angry with the rat since the rat didn't wake him up as he had promised. So from then on, the cat had a deep hatred for the rat; he swore to kill the rat when they met.
2. The Legend of Ox
In ancient times, the ox king was a guard of the Jade Emperor who always worked between the heavenly palace and the earth. One day, a farmer asked the ox to take a message to the Jade Emperor, saying that the earth was very ugly as it was devoid of grasses, and he hoped the Jade Emperor could send some grass seeds to make the earth beautiful. The Jade Emperor agreed and asked who was willing to do this job. The ox king offered himself to take the job. However, being afraid that the ox might mess up because of his usual carelessness, the Jade Emperor didn't agree to let him go. The ox insisted, and even promised the Jade Emperor that he would accept a punishment if he could not do it well. Finally, the Jade Emperor agreed. The ox was requested to put a handful of seeds on the earth every three steps.
The ox king walked out of the heavenly palace with grass seeds in his hand, but he accidentally fell down. After he arrived on the earth, he felt dizzy and misunderstood what the Jade Emperor had asked him to do, so he put three handfuls of seeds on the earth with every step; as a result, too many seeds were put on the earth.
The next year, wild grass grew everywhere, and farmers were unable to plant crops. The Jade Emperor knew there was something wrong, so he called in the ox king and asked what happened, only to discover that the ox had put three handfuls of seeds down with every step. The Jade Emperor punished the ox and his descendants with only being able to eat grass and by helping farmers with their weeding. What’s more, they needed to help the farmers to work from generation to generation.
However, the ox was known as a good kind of animal who would come to his senses and correct his mistakes, and he bared the hardship without complaint. He was diligent, he pulled the plow and never loosened it; he did a lot of work for the farmer, so people thought highly of him. When ranking animals in the zodiac, the people elected him as one of the twelve Chinese Zodiacs. If it was not for the speculation of the little rat who won, the ox would surely have been selected as the leader of the twelve animals. The ox won his place in the Chinese Zodiac by his contribution to mankind.
3. The Legend of Tiger
In ancient times, among animal zodiacs, there was a lion but not a tiger. As the lion was too cruel, and his reputation was not good, the Jade Emperor took charge of the animal zodiacs and decided to remove the lion. However, he had to find someone who could manage the mountains. At that time, the Jade Emperor called to mind the tiger guard.
In the past, the tiger guard was just an animal on the earth; he was not famous. He learned a lot like catching, pouncing and biting from the cat, which made him a warrior in the mountain forests. Usually in any contests, his opponents would be hurt or dead. Since then, the tiger had dominated the forests. Later, he was called in to the heavenly palace when the Jade Emperor learned that he was courageous. The tiger won the contest against the guards in the heavenly palace and became the guard responsible for the front door of the heavenly palace.
Soon after, however, birds and animals on the earth began to break the law since there was no one to guard them. The Jade Emperor sent the tiger to the earth and promised to give him credit for each win, as the Jade Emperor wished for a peaceful world on the earth.
The tiger learned that on the earth, the three fiercest animals were the lion, the bear and the horse. With his bravery and skillful Wushu (martial arts), the tiger beat the lion, the bear and the horse one by one. Other evil beasts escaped, hearing the news that the tiger had beaten the lion, bear and horse. They hid in the wild uninhabited forests. People on the earth were moved and thanked the tiger who had contributed so much to them.
Back at the heavenly palace, the Jade Emperor marked three lines on the tiger because of his three feats. Later, the earth was harassed by the East Sea turtle monster, and there was a world of water there. Numerous shrimp and crabs did evil to people on the earth, so the tiger came and killed the turtle monster. The Jade Emperor was so satisfied that he marked another line on the forehead of the tiger to remember his contribution. Thus an eye-catching "王 (wang)" (which means ‘king’) character is now on the forehead of the tiger.
The lion was removed when his notoriety came to the Jade Emperor’s attention and the master tiger was added into the animal zodiac. Since then, the tiger became a member of the zodiac, and the lion was banished to the distant south. Also, the tiger left the heavenly palace and came to the earth to keep it peaceful. Today, there are also talismans like amulets, rings and tiger-shaped carvings, to ward off evil. In rural areas, people also like their children to wear hats or shoes patterned with tigers, hoping that good luck and peace will always be with them.