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Chinese Zodiac - The Origin of the Circle of Animals - Part One

Updated on February 22, 2012
The Ming Shu
The Ming Shu

The Story Begins

There exist several different tales on how the Circle of Animals or Ming Shu came into existence. The major character in these tales is either the Mighty Jade Emperor or the Venerable Buddha. The animals taking part are the same – those that comprise the Ming Shu or Circle of Animals. These are the creatures that are used in Chinese Astrology to depict the general character of the year and the individual. One of the most common stories on the origin of the Chinese Zodiac goes something like this:

The Circle of Animals is called

Once long ago, when the World had still its youth, the venerable Buddha decided to invite all the animals of the world to enter into a race. They were to attend a banquet at his splendid Palace place that lay just beyond a fast flowing and very wide River. When it came to decide which animals to invite, Buddha turned to his minister. He asked him to help him select the animals. The choice was to be made on a single criterion: their usefulness to humans. The inducement Buddha was to provide for the animals was exciting. In his formal message, delivered by liveried messenger, he stated: β€œThe first 12 animals who make it across the powerful River will become part of the Ming Shu. Where you are placed on this illustrious Zodiac will rely on in what order you arrive.”

Ready, Steady, Go

The animals were contacted and soon were on their way, leaving their homes far behind. They all departed on the same day for the Palace with one goal in mind – to win. The Race was now truly underway. The journey was not to be a direct one. It was one that would test both the physical capability and intellectual ability of every single competitor.

The Competitors

The competitors in the race were hardly uniform. They varied greatly in size, shape and weight. Consider the differences between the small Rat, the gliding Snake and the powerful Dragon. Yet, while each of the animals seriously wanted to win, the expectations for some of these creatures was far from high. How could the Rat, for instance, outdistance the rapid ox. Yet, the sure favourite in this contest was almighty Dragon. There was no question of his strength, endurance and abilities. Moreover, the Dragon could glide through the air faster than all the other animals could walk or run on the ground. No River, however, strong or swift, would be able to hold back a Dragon.

There were other serious contenders. The the Ox, Tiger and the Horse could not only travel across the land swiftly, they could swim through water. The Rabbit or Hare was also a possible contender. While his ability to cross water was a weakness, he was very fleet on land.

In such a divine race, it was not possible to ignore other competitors, including the Rooster, the Ram (Goat) or the Monkey. After all, all creatures had their strengths and all truly wanted to win this race. In fact, winning was the only thought of those at the very beginning of the event.


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