The most popular legend surrounding the origin of Chinese zodiac goes that Jade Emperor decided to hold a swimming race in order to select the animals that were to be taken in the zodiac. Cat and rat were the worst swimmers amongst all the animals. They hatched a plan and decided to cross the river on the back of the ox. Since ox was a naive and kind animal, he agreed to carry both of them across the river. Just as they were about to reach the shore, rat, in order to ensure his victory, pushed the cat into the river.
It is said since this incident, the cat became a sworn enemy of the rat. It has never forgiven rat and even hates water. The moment ox crossed the river; rat jumped in front of him and reached the shore first. Thus, rat got the first position in the Chinese Zodiac. Just behind rat came the ox, which was then given the second place in the list of zodiac signs. The third animal to cross the river was tiger, the most powerful of all the animals. He explained that the heavy currents of the river, which were pushing him downstream, were responsible for the delay.
Just as tiger was named as the third animal of the zodiac, the Emperor heard a thumping sound, which seemed to be coming from a distance. The sound was followed by the arrival of the rabbit. Rabbit explained that in the beginning, he tried to cross the river by jumping from one stone to another. However, after reaching midway, the stones almost came to an end and he was on the verge of losing the race. Suddenly a floating log came by and climbing on it, rabbit reached the shore.
With this, the rabbit got the fourth place in the zodiac cycle. The fifth animal to reach the shore was the dragon. Even though dragon was a strong and flying creature, he could not come in the first place. The reason was that dragon had stopped on the way to help all the people and creatures of the earth by making rain. Then, when he was just about to reach the shore, he saw a little rabbit hanging on to a log.
So, the dragon helped the rat in reaching the shore by moving his log with a puff of breath. Pleased with the good deeds of the dragon, the Emperor granted him the fifth position in the zodiac. Hardly had this been done that a galloping sound was heard by everyone. With this, the horse appeared on the shore. The snake had hidden himself on the hoof of the horse and suddenly emerged on shore. The sudden appearance frightened the horse a little and he fell back. So, the snake was given the sixth place in the zodiac and the horse, the seventh.
Some time later, ram, monkey and rooster reached the shore together. They told the Emperor that the three of them had helped each other in crossing the river. The rooster had spotted a raft and took monkey and ram with him. Then, ram and monkey had cleared the weeds and pulled the raft to the shore. Delighted with their combined efforts, the Emperor gave all of them a place in the zodiac. Ram was named as the eighth animal of the zodiac, monkey as the ninth and rooster as the tenth.
Even though Dog was the best swimmer amongst all the animals, he was the eleventh animal to reach the shore. He explained that he was in dire need of a good bath and the clean and fresh water of the river came across as a big temptation. He got late because of the leisurely bath and was on the verge of losing his place in the zodiac. However, he got the eleventh position in the zodiac list. The Emperor was about to end the competition when the pig emerged yelping and squealing from the river.
He had gotten hungry on the way and stopped for having a lavish meal. Then, he had fallen asleep, because of which he was late. Since the pig reached atleast before the closure of the competition, he was named as the twelfth animal of the zodiac. The cat was the last animal to reach the shore. Since he had finished too late (thirteenth number), he did not win any place in the calendar. From that time onward, he vowed to be the worst enemy of the rat forever. There are a number of variations to this legend.
One variation of the story tells us that initially the cattle were invited to take part in the race. However, they nominated a water buffalo to represent them, since he was more skilled at swimming. The representative was accepted as both of them belonged to the bovine category. Another version lengthens the race beyond the mere crossing of the river. This version has the route running through a forest, over ranges of plains and grasslands, along a stream and through a lake, before coming to the destination town.
Then, we have one more version that talks about two different races. The first race involved the participation of all the animals in two divisions. The participants were divided in order to prevent the fast animals from dominating the top positions. First six animals crossing the race in each of the divisions competed against each other in the second race. The second race decided which animal would be placed on what position in the zodiac. In yet another version, the sort of competition was changed altogether.
As per this version, each animal was invited to talk in front of the other animals. He then had to give valid reasons as to why he should be given the top position in the Zodiac. Another version tells us that cat was informally given the 13th month of the zodiac calendar. Since, thirteen is considered as an unlucky number, cats are considered a bad omen. The last variation of the story is that dog and the wild boar were the last ones to complete the competition and almost lost their place. This is why, despite their differences, they share mutual warmth.