Generations of Toms have hunted Jerries remorselessly.

According to a very popular folktale from the Far East, this feud between cats and mice dates back to a Great Race called by the King of the Gods. The following is the story of this race, which, beyond the cat-mouse dispute, most importantly determined the twelve divine beasts immortalized as those of the Chinese zodiac.

Those twelve animals are the rat, the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the serpent, the horse, the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the boar.

Photo: Race trace

The story goes that one day, the King of the Gods decided to create a unified calendar for his mortal subjects. His Divine Majesty decided that he would select twelve animals, each of whom were to become guardian spirits of a single year in a 12-year cycle.

To determine exactly which animals would become the guardian spirits, the King of the Gods gathered all the creatures in the animal kingdom and informed them that on the first day of the new year, a Great Race was to take place. He proclaimed that the first twelve animals to reach the top of the highest peak in the land, the abode of the gods, would have the great honour of becoming guardian spirits.

This great honour and opportunity was exciting news for the animals. They returned to their homes and began their arduous training for the Great Race and its promise of glory.

It happened that, at this time, the cat and the mouse were great friends. The cat, forgetful and unable to remember when exactly the race was to start, visited his friend the mouse to ask him.

“On the second day of the year,” the sly mouse, full of deception, replied.

The cat was gullible and did not doubt his good friend.

Photo: a rat among foliage

On the eve of the race, the mouse heard a rumour that the ox, well aware of his own lack of speed, planned on an early departure for the divine mountain before all others. Hearing this, the mouse decided to hitch a ride with the kindly ox. The ox did not mind the company and consented to the mouse’s request.

On the first day of the new year, just before the ox reached the finish line, the mouse leapt from the ox’s horns and successfully crossed the line first. And so, the first year in the 12-year cycle became the Year of the Rat (the distinction between rats and mice is unclear in most East Asian languages), followed by the Year of the Ox.

The next two to arrive at the abode of the gods were the tiger and the hare. The mighty dragon arrived next, having slowed down to assist an apparently similar but less speedy animal—the serpent. The horse and the goat arrived next.

Finally, at the end of this pack, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the boar arrived. All the animals that arrived after were not selected to become guardian spirits of the 12-year cycle.

Photo: Cat poking head out from under blanket

Evidently, the cat never made it.

Blissfully unaware that he had been deceived by the wily mouse, the cat stayed home and enjoyed a lazy nap that day. When the cat eventually discovered that he had been duped, he felt terribly betrayed and was furious.

The cat never forgave the mouse and, according to this story, this is the reason why the cat-and-mouse game has been played by so many generations thereafter, from the earliest of times right down to the present day.

Posted by:Island Folklore

An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.