A long, long time ago, the Jade Emperor in the heavens was celebrating his birthday. Unfortunately, at that time there was no way of counting the years, so he couldn’t be sure how old he was. He decided to come up with a method to count the years.
He sent his servant into the forest to announce that there would be a race among the animals with a special prize for the 12 winners. When the animals heard the news they all wondered what the prize would be.
On the day of the race, the emperor arrived on a golden chariot. As he cleared his voice to speak, the animals fell silent. “There will be a race across the river. The first 12 animals to reach the opposite bank will have a year named after them. The first year will be named after the first animal across, and so on,” said the emperor.
On the day of the race all the animals lined up on the starting line. With the drop of a flag the race began, and the animals sprinted toward the river. The first to arrive were the cat and the rat, but they soon realized that it was further than they had thought. In fact, it looked pretty dangerous. They sat wondering what to do, when the ox arrived. Suddenly the rat had an idea. “Hey ox, do you mind carrying us across the river?” he asked. The ox was a kind animal, so he readily agreed.
The cat and the rat jumped on the ox’s head and together they crossed the river. Just as they were about to make landfall on the opposite the bank, the rat jumped off the ox’s head, making him the first one across.
“Congratulations!” said the emperor. “The first year shall be named after you.” The ox was furious about being cheated, but as the second animal across he got the second year.
There was a long gap until the tiger arrived, exhausted after a difficult swim. The emperor was pleased with his efforts and named the third year after him. The tiger was followed by the rabbit, which surprised the emperor. “Everyone knows rabbits can’t swim. Surely you cheated!”
The rabbit explained that it was true, he couldn’t swim, but he had managed to cross the river by jumping across the stones and sailing on a log. This impressed the emperor who awarded him the fourth year.
The emperor was delighted with what he had seen so far. All the animals had shown tremendous resourcefulness to cross the river, but he had expected the dragon, which could both swim and fly, to easily win. Yet the dragon was nowhere in sight.
Just then a shadow descended over the animals as the dragon swooped in to land. “You finally made it. Where have you been?” asked the emperor. “I had to make it rain and then I saw a rabbit trying to cross the river on a log, so I had to create some wind to help him cross,” said the dragon. “Very well. You’re the fifth animal so you get the fifth year,” said the emperor.