There exist different variations on how the Circle of Animals came into being. The most common variation goes something like this:
The Circle Of Animals Is Called
Once upon a time, when the World was still young, the venerable Buddha invited all the animals to take part in a race to a banquet at his magnificent Palace. The incentive Buddha gave them was heady. He told them in his message: “The first 12 who cross the mighty river to arrive will form part of the Ming Sui. Your position on this exulted Zodiac will depend on the time you arrive.”
The Race Begins
The animals quickly left their homes. They all started off for the Palace on the same day. The Race had begun but the journey was not a straightforward one. It would be one to test the physical endurance and intellectual capabilities as well as the emotional well-being of all the animals.
Sizing Up The Competition
The contestants were a mixed lot. There was the tiny Rat, the slithering Snake and the mighty Dragon, to name a few. Each wanted to win, but the expectations for some were low. It was assumed that the mighty Dragon would come first. After all, he could glide through the air and emerge from the depths of any of China’s rivers with ease.
Even the Tiger, the Ox and the Horse were regarded as serious contenders. They could swim easily through water. They could also travel swiftly across the land. The Tiger could bound over the ground even faster than the Horse or the Ox. The Rabbit or Hare was fleet on the land if somewhat dubious in the water.
In this race, you could not even rule out completely the Rooster, the Sheep (Goat) or the Monkey. All were determined to win. This was the only thought on their minds the day they set off.
The Dragon, as mentioned earlier, seemed to be the obvious favorite. How could he not win? Yet, the Dragon soon fell behind. As he weaved his way over the land and in and out of the clouds, he saw poor villagers in trouble. They were without rain and, as was customary, turned to the Dragon Kings for help. The Dragon, being both honorable and unselfish, stopped and helped them. As a result, he did not cross the river first. In fact, some say, he even stopped to help the Hare to cross before he, the Dragon arrived to earn the fifth position on the Circle.
Ahead of the Dragon were the aforementioned Hare. He came fourth. As to be expected, the Ox and the Tiger were also ahead in the race. In fact, the Ox came in second while the Tiger arrived third. The Horse would have followed the Dragon, taking sixth place, but for the swift and cunning action of the Snake.
The Snake knew his vulnerability when it came to water. He arrived at the River at the same time as the Horse. The Snake seized this chance to make it safely and swiftly across. He wrapped himself around the hoof of the Horse. When they got to the other side, the Snake leaped out, scaring the Horse back. This was enough to clinch the Snake sixth place and the Horse seventh.
Meanwhile, the Dog stopped along the way. He decided the race was not that important after all. He stopped and took a bath. As a result, the Dog came in eleventh.
And The Winner is…The Pig also neglected to take the whole matter as seriously as he should have done. He stopped when he had reached the half-way point. He decided he was hungry. In fact, the Pig ate so much, he required a nap. When he awoke, he had just enough time to make it over the river to earn twelfth place.
But what about the winner? The animal who took first place in the race and, subsequently became the first animal of the Zodiac was an unlikely creature. Who, after all, would have believed the Rat would be able to win the race? Yet, this is what happened.
The Rat knew he was not strong enough or fast enough to beat the others. He had one skill, however, that had never failed him. This was craftiness and intelligence. The Rat used these tools to his advantage. He hitched a ride on the Ox.
The Ox was clearly in the lead when it entered the river. The Rat sat on the back of this animal until the shore was clearly in sight. At the very last seconds, before the Ox touched dry land, the Rat made his move. He leaped off the back and onto the river banks. The Rat had won. He had proven that intelligence was better than brawn in the race of life.