Once upon a time in China, the Jade Emperor decided there should be a way of measuring time. He had already mastered the lessons of Yin and Yang, the five elements, and 111 constellations. But he needed a way to mark the hours, months and years in his majestic kingdom. The Emperor broke the day into 12 two hour blocks, broke the year into 12 months, and created the 12 year cycle. But he needed a way to name his new time creation.
The Jade Emperor decided to host a swimming race across the Yellow River on his birthday. He proclaimed that the first twelve animals to cross the fast flowing river would be the winners and they would each have a portion of his Heavenly Cycle named after them.
As the sun rose on the morning of the Emperor's birthday, all the animals in the kingdom lined up along the banks of the river. The Rat and the Cat, who were the best of friends, were worried because they were poor swimmers. Being clever they asked the strong Ox if he would carry them across the river.
"Of course" replied the Ox. "Please climb on my back and I will take you across."
The Rat and the Cat jumped up and were both pleasantly surprised when the Ox took the lead. As they approached the bank where the Jade Emperor was standing by the finish line, the Rat pushed the Cat into the river leaving him to struggle in the water. The Rat leapt onto to the head of the Ox and used it to catapult himself onto the river bank to finish first.
"Well done," said the Jade Emperor to the proud Rat. "The first year of the zodiac shall bear your name! Off to the Heavens you go!" And with that, the image of the clever Rat was placed first in the Heavenly Cycle.
The kind Ox had been tricked into second place; however, he was given the consolation prize of having the second year of the Heavenly Cycle named after him and his image was sent off into the sky.
Shortly after, the exhausted Tiger clawed his way to the river bank to claim third place. Swimming across the river had been an enormous struggle for him against the strong currents - but his grace and strength carried him across. The Jade Emperor proclaimed, "What amazing prowess!" and was so delighted with the Tiger's efforts that he named the third year after him and sent his image up into the Heavenly Cycle.
Against all odds, the next to arrive was the lucky Rabbit - who hadn't swum at all. He hopped across on some stepping stones and found a floating log which carried him to the shore. "I shall be delighted to name the fourth year after you" said the surprised Jade Emperor and sent the image of the Rabbit up to the Heavenly Cycle.
Just then, the benevolent Dragon swooped down out of the sky to take fifth place. "Dearest Dragon," the Jade Emperor questioned, "why didn’t you win the race? I had assumed you would be first since not only can you swim, but you have the power of flight!"
"Apologies your Grace! I was detained because some people and animals needed water to drink, so I made some rain to quench both the fields and their thirst" the Dragon explained. "Just before I landed, I noticed a little Rabbit float on a log that was heading straight into the rapids! I blew a puff of wind so that the log would float to the river bank - I'm sorry to have been delayed."
"Ah! Well that was very kind of you! Now that you are here, you will have the fifth year of the divine Cycle named after you." And the image of the Benevolent Dragon was sent into the Heavens.
Shortly thereafter, the Jade Emperor heard was the sound of the wild Horse's hooves. Just as he was thinking the Horse would be the next animal to arrive, a sneaky Snake wriggled out from around one of the Horse’s hooves. The Horse was so surprised that he jumped backwards giving the Snake a chance to take the sixth place in the race, leaving the Horse to be satisfied with seventh place. The Jade Emperor sent both their images off into the Heavens.
Not long afterwards, a raft arrived carrying the Goat, the Monkey and the Rooster. They explained to the Jade Emperor how, because they couldn't swim they had all decided to share the raft that the Rooster had found. The Goat had cleared weeds and the Monkey navigated the raft to the shore. The Emperor was overcome with joy that the animals had worked together. He decided the Goat would be the eighth animal in the Heavenly cycle, the Monkey the ninth, and the Rooster the tenth. With that, he sent the images of the triad of friends up into the Heavens.
The next animal to finish was the happy Dog. "I'm confused by your timing," said the Jade Emperor. "You're the best of swimmers; the Dog paddle was named after you! Why is it you're so late?"
"Oh, your Grace! The water in the river was so clean that I had to have a bath on the way," explained the Dog. His reward was to have the eleventh year named after him and the image of the Dog was sent up into the Heavens.
There was one place left in the zodiac. The Emperor wondered when the last winner would come and who it would be! He had nearly given up when he heard a grunt from the Pig. "You took a long time to cross the river," said the Emperor to the Pig. "I was hungry and stopped to eat," answered the Pig. "After the meal I felt so tired that I fell asleep."
"Well done Pig. You have still made it, so the last year of the Cycle will bear your name! Off to the Heavens your image goes!" And with that, the Jade Emperor officially concluded the race.
Not long after, the Cat who had been pushed into the water by the Rat, crawled out of the water sopping wet only to discover the grand race had finished. He was too late to have a year named after him and forever after the Cat has done what he could to hunt the Rat.