MY COLLEAGUE Nick is a snake.
This might seem unkind, but when I say that one of my other colleagues is a pig you may begin to smell a rat. Actually, I didn’t find any rats in the office, but I did discover a couple of oxen, two pigs and a horse. There is even a dragon on the sports desk and I myself am a bit of a monkey.
These, in case you hadn’t already guessed already, are our Chinese birth signs.
We stand on the brink of a new year in Chinese astrology. It will be the Year of the Rabbit.
In China there will be great festivities and feasting. It is a time when families strive to be together.
Until fairly recently I was a student of Mandarin Chinese at Secondborn’s school, which is a language college offering courses to adult learners. Each spring our teacher (we had a new one every year) would tell us with great excitement about New Year and its importance.
Most of them begged the school for leave to return to China at this time and were prepared to make the epic and expensive journey to be with family and friends for just a few days.
The Chinese have a calendar that operates on a 12-year cycle, each year represented by an animal.
There is a charming legend that explains how the animals were chosen.
It goes something like this: The Jade Emperor decided to hold a swimming race across a river. The cat and the rat were the worst swimmers so hitched a ride on the back of the kindly ox. As they neared the riverbank, the rat pushed the cat into the water and leapt ahead of the ox. First place to Mr Rat and second place to the ox. (This explains why cats hate water and rats, by the way).
Third place went to the tiger, a strong swimmer; with the nimble rabbit coming in fourth, having used stepping stones and a log to keep its feet dry.
The powerful dragon was next to arrive, explaining that although he could have easily won the race he had stopped to help all the animals and people of the earth by making rain – he’d also puffed the rabbit’s log towards the riverbank.
Sixth place was awarded to the snake, who had wrapped itself around a hoof of the horse and then sneakily frightened its host. The horse came in seventh.
The ram, rooster and monkey travelled together on a raft and were awarded eighth, ninth and tenth place for their co-operation.
Because he was enjoying himself in the water so much – and needed to get clean – the dog arrived in 11th place. And, just as the Emperor was about to call an end to the competition, the pig made it across the river, explaining that he’d had a big meal, followed by a postprandial snooze, and had therefore been a late starter.
The poor old cat arrived last, too late to get a place in the zodiac. The number 13 was certainly unlucky for him.
Happy New Year for February 3. Xin nian kuai le!