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How the Rooster Earned Its Spot

Why is there only one bird in the Chinese zodiac?

The Year of the Rooster (or Chicken, arguably) is just around the corner, with Chinese New Year arriving on January 28 in 2017.

Known as 生肖 (shēngxiào) in Chinese, the Zodiac consists of 12 animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. People born in the year of the Rooster are believed to be very observant, hardworking, courageous, talented, and confident in themselves.

Each year is also associated with one of the Five Elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, or Earth. The zodiac sign and the element shape the astrology for the year together. For example, 2017 is a Fire Rooster year. And the next Fire Rooster year will recur 60 years later.

You may have noticed that the rooster is the only bird among the 12 zodiac animals. It just so happens that, just like everything else in Chinese culture, there is a legend to go along with it.

It is said that the Jade Emperor summoned animals to see him in heaven and said that the first 12 animals would be representatives of the years. So, the meeting became a race. No birds were allowed to take part, and the rooster felt this was unfair. But the Horse, who was qualified to join the competition, said to the Rooster, “Look at all the qualified animals! We horses can be ridden; Ox can plough; Dragon has the ability to call for wind and rain; even dog can guard houses. If you want to be accepted by the Emperor Jade, you should let them know what you do for people!”

Hearing this, Rooster spent the whole night thinking about himself. Finally, it came to him that he could wake people up in the morning. The Jade Emperor appreciated his hard work and put a red flower on his head as a reward and allowed him to complete for the 12 zodiac animal representatives. The red flower from the Jade Emperor became the rooster’s red coxcomb.

The competition in the race was fierce and friendships began to fall about. It was said that the Cat was initially a good friend of the Rat and had asked the rat to wake him for the race, but the rat did not, which is why there is no cat in the Chinese zodiac. The Cat was furious and became rat’s worst enemy thereafter.

The Rooster woke early and ran to heaven, encountering the Dog along the way. Together, they walked hand in hand to heaven, but when they neared the destination the Rooster became suddenly aggressive and overtook the Dog, which is why the Rooster is the tenth zodiac animal and the Dog is the eleventh. Like the Cat, the Dog was outraged and never forgave the Rooster, which is why they don’t get along to this day.

In Chinese you can find a lot of idioms containing both “rooster” and “dog,” most of which have a negative connotations. We have 鸡飞狗跳 (jīfēi gǒutiào, roosters flying and dogs jumping), meaning mass confusion or great disorder; 鸡鸣狗盗 (jīmíng gǒudào, rooster crows and dog snatches), referring to mean people who play petty tricks; 鸡犬不宁(jīquǎn bùníng, even roosters and dogs are not left in peace), also describing general disturbances or turmoil; and 鸡犬升天 (jīquǎn shēngtiān, even roosters and dogs ascend to heaven immortals), which sounds like a good term, but it actually means that relatives and followers of a high official get promoted easily.


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