Legend has it that the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac were chosen according to the position they came in a race, often referred to as the Heavenly Gate Race. The most popular myth describes how the Jade Emperor decreed that a race should occur in order to determine a measurement of time for his people – hence what became the Chinese Zodiac Calendar. Whilst some tales narrate that only 12 species of animal turned up for the start of the race, others describe that all the animals of the world took part. The race involved crossing a rapidly flowing river. The animals had to be strong, cunning and determined! Only the first 12 animals across the finishing line would be selected. As we now know, these were the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig, in that order.
Originally however, the Tiger was not one of the 12 animals. The third animal to make it across the river was in fact the Lion but it was seen to be too ferocious and notorious, and so the Jade Emperor replaced it with the Tiger, who became a guardian in heaven, and later, the guardian of all the animals on earth. At that time, the Lion, Bear and Horse (believe it or not) were considered to be the most vicious animals, spreading terror among the animal and human kingdoms. Challenging each of the three troublesome beasts in turn to a duel, the Tiger was victorious. All the other animals retreated into the jungle and the brave tiger became revered among the mortals. Upon its return to the Heavenly Kingdom, the Jade Emperor honoured the Tiger’s three victories by inscribing three horizontal stripes on its forehead. Some time later, following another victory on earth against the Turtle Monster, the Jade Emperor honoured the courageous beast once more by inscribing a vertical line across the existing lines on the Tiger’s forehead, thus creating the Chinese symbol ‘王’ (‘wang’) meaning ‘king’. And so the Tiger became known as the king of all the animals. Henceforth, the Tiger’s defeat of the gangster animals was commemorated annually by hanging tiger charms on gates and over entrances and making tiger hats and shoes for children to wear.
As we approach Chinese New Year on 1st February and the start of the traditional celebrations leading up to the Lantern Festival on 15th February, we prepare to welcome in the year of the Tiger, more specifically the Water Tiger.