In Chinese mythology, there is a story of a great race that decided which animals make it into the Zodiac and in what order. It goes something like this.
Long, long ago, there was no Chinese zodiac. The Jade Emperor wanted to select 12 animals to be his guards. He sent an immortal being into man's world to spread the message that the earlier one went through the Heavenly Gate, the better the rank one would have.
Early Risers: Quick-Witted Rat and Diligent Ox
The next day, the animals set off towards the Heavenly Gate. The great race loomed just on the horizon and the Cat and the Rat were best of friends. Together, the two of them hatched a plan to ride the Ox across the river together. They knew the large and hardy Ox was accustomed to crossing rivers and would likely finish first. At the start of the race, the two animals slipped atop the Ox. The diligent Ox did not mind at all and simply continued.
But, as the Cat and the Rat rode atop the Ox, they were jolted abruptly forward. The sudden force sent the Cat flying off the Ox and into the river. The Cat let out a piercing hiss directed at the Rat, but by then, it was too late, and the Ox, with the Rat atop, was already too far ahead of the Cat.
Even to this this day, Cat still holds a grudge against Rat. This is why Cat hates water and hunts Rat every time he sees him!
The Ox lumbered towards the finish line and was going to come first. Suddenly, the Rat leapt from Ox's back and crossed the finish-line first. However, the Ox was too composed a sort to make a big fuss.
Competitive and Fast: Tiger and Rabbit
Water splashed forth from the river. The Tiger had burst from beneath the water, his coat sopping wet. His huge paw prints bore down on the damp muddy shore and with one final fierce stride, the Tiger claimed the third spot in the Zodiac.
Despite the Rabbit's small stature, he had kept pace, leaping from one rock to another so he could quickly cross the river. A moment later the Rabbit's eyes widened. A log was floating slowly by. The Rabbit sped into a wild paddle, water flying up around him, pressing both paws to the log, clinging on as tightly as he could muster.
A sudden gust stirred thickly in the air, sending the log hurling down the river. The Rabbit's pulse gradually slowed, seemingly one beat at a time, as he neared the shore, a deep-seated feeling of relief overtaking him. The Rabbit hopped right across the finish line.
The Rabbit did not stop as he passed the Emperor who was smiling at the Rabbit with a generous grin. A mix of relief and exhilaration had seeped through his being, replacing the disappointment he had felt about only getting fourth place.
Good-Looking Dragon and Crafty Snake
Over the finish line the Dragon soared swiftly, moving in a majestic aerial stride making his rapid descent, the clouds seemed to part. Why has the Dragon not come in first place? he wondered. When the Jade Emperor addressed the Dragon, he began to explain the circumstances that had befallen him.
"Exalted Jade Emperor ~ on my way I saw several villagers that were in trouble. A fire had ignited amidst their crops and to put out the flames, I used my breath to extinguish the blaze. I had to be careful though. I did not want to also sweep the villagers up in this gale of my own creation. I also saw a tiny Rabbit in the river clinging to a log, so I used my breath to push it to shore."
The Jade Emperor smiled again. He was well acquainted with the Dragon's nature. He was not disappointed in him.
As the Dragon and the Jade Emperor spoke, the Horse was in the midst of galloping across the river, she burst from the river with only a few strides separating her from the finish line. From the grass the Snake surged out, approaching from behind the Horse's hooves, shocked she recoiled, leaping backwards. A high nay exited the Horse's mouth, hooves thrown up towards the sky. With a quick slither, the Snake crossed the finish line.
The Jade Emperor watched the snake move past the finish-line, still smiling. He did not judge the Snake. The Snake had merely been clever.
Kind and Modest Horse and Sheep: Jumping Monkey and Hardworking Rooster
The Horse lowered her long-face, a tinge of shame lingering in her dark beady eyes as she stepped slowly across the finish line. Fear had cost her the sixth spot. Her legs, which moments ago had carried her in an untamed gallop were now locked in slow shaky steps, which barely left imprints upon the dirt.
Back in the river, the Monkey, the Rooster, and the Sheep, all floated atop a raft, which the Rooster had found resting by the opposite shore - unclaimed by anyone.
Together, the three of them worked furiously, using lengthy branches as makeshift paddles. The Sheep had been so comforting and formed such harmonious bonds with them, that the others felt it was only right to let the Sheep claim the 8th place. If the sheep had helped foster these bonds, they may not have all made it to the finish-line.
The Monkey claimed the ninth place and the Rooster took the tenth place.
Loyal Dog and Compassionate Pig
Coat sopping wet, the dog scrambled across the finish line next. The dog was an adept swimmer, but because he had not bathed for some time, he had over indulged in the river, frolicking without a care in the water. And, thus, the dog claimed the eleventh place in the race.
Over the horizon, a loud exhausted oink sounded. The Pig moved at a surprisingly swift gait, little feet locked in a tiny cyclical gallop.The Jade Emperor gave the pig a sharp glance as he crossed the finish line. "How has one such as you who possesses such surprising speed fallen so far behind?" he asked.
The Pig snorted as he readied himself to speak. "Sorry, Exalted Jade Emperor - I was hungry and couldn't resist stopping to gobble something up. I felt sleepy after eating, and couldn't help myself."
The 12 animals of the Zodiac had been decided and so concluded The Great Race.