The Banquet of the Jade EmperorPosted: 3 February 2011
A very happy Chinese New Year to everyone celebrating! February 3rd marks the start of the biggest festival in the Chinese calendar, which ends with the Lantern Festival on 17th February. As I’ve been writing about Asian folklore a lot recently I thought I’d continue this with some of the stories surrounding the start of the lunar new year.
The Chinese lunar calendar is a twelve year cycle, with each year given the name of an animal. This year is the year of the Rabbit. If you were born in the year 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987 or 1999, you are most likely* a Rabbit!
The following tale comes from the Taoist faith. It is said that the ruler of the heavens, the Jade Emperor, called a banquet to celebrate the new year. He sent an invite to all of the animals in the world, telling them that the first to arrive on the day of the feast would be greatly rewarded. The animals were all very excited, and when the time came for the feast to be held, they all hurried to get there first.
The Cat and the Rat were good friends, and set out together. They soon reached a river, which was far too wide for them to jump over and too fast-flowing for them to swim. Though they had been the first to get this far they despaired. Not long afterwards, the Ox reached the riverbank. The Ox was big and strong and so began to wade out into the water.
The Rat called out to the Ox. “Please, great Ox; you are big and strong! But we are weak swimmers and fear we will drown in the water. Will you carry us across the river on your back?”
The Ox was a kind animal and agreed, as he could see that both the Cat and the Rat were very small creatures. They jumped onto his back and together, the three of them began cross the river. When they approached the opposite bank, the Rat saw that the place where the feast was to be held was nearby. He knew that on land the Cat could run faster than him; and so, he pushed his old friend into the river. The Cat was swept downstream and out of sight.
The Ox and the Rat reached the far side. The Ox was pleased, as he knew that this meant he would arrive first and receive the greatest reward. However, just before he stepped onto the bank the Rat jumped off his back and reached the Jade Emperor first.
“Well done, Rat; you are the first to answer the summons. The first year will be named after you. Ox, you are the second to arrive and so yours will be the second.” But the Ox was upset, knowing he had been tricked by the Rat.
Soon afterwards, the Tiger reached the bank of the river. He was exhausted and sopping wet, having worked very hard to swim across the river. But the Jade Emperor was impressed by his effort and granted to him the third year.
The Rabbit was next to arrive. He was completely dry. The Jade Emperor asked him how he had managed to cross the river.
“I travelled further downstream,” said the Rabbit, “where I found some stepping stones. I jumped on a floating log which carried me to the bank.” The Jade Emperor was pleased at the Rabbit’s cleverness and gave him the fourth year.
Just then, the Dragon swooped down and landed beside them. The Emperor was surprised.
“You alone of the creatures here can fly; the river would be no trouble for you. Why then, are you late?” he asked.
The Dragon answered, “I was crossing the river, when I saw far below me a Rabbit floating on a log in the water. I blew hard so that the log would reach the side of the river.” The Emperor was moved by the Dragon’s kindness and so named the fifth year after him.
Just then, a sound of hooves was heard from further down the bank. The Horse soon came into sight. Instead of risking the crossing where the river was swift and deep, he had galloped much further upstream and crossed where the river was shallower.
However, just as the Horse was about to reach the banquet, the Snake uncoiled himself from around the Horse’s leg, giving him such a shock that he reared up. While the Horse was distracted, the Snake quickly slithered to the Jade Emperor and was awarded the sixth year. The embarrassed Horse was given the seventh year.
Not long afterwards, a raft bearing the Goat, the Monkey and the Rooster reached the shore. They explained to the Jade Emperor that they had travelled together on the raft, which the Rooster had found.
The Monkey had freed the raft from the weeds trapping it and the Goat had pushed his two friends to the shore. The Emperor was so impressed by their teamwork that he granted the Goat the eighth year, the Monkey the ninth year and the Rooster the tenth.
Next to arrive was the Dog. He was a good swimmer, but admitted to the Jade Emperor that he had enjoyed the water so much that he had played in it for too long and forgotten where he had been going. Nevertheless, the Jade Emperor awarded the Dog with the eleventh year.
Now there was only one place left at the table, and no one had come. Finally, grunting was heard and the Boar stepped out of the river.
“Why did you take so long to cross the river?” the Jade Emperor asked.
“I became hungry on the way and stopped to eat. Then,” the Boar replied, “I fell asleep.” But the Jade Emperor rewarded him with the twelfth and final year.
You may be wondering what became of the poor Cat. Having been swept far downstream, he eventually managed to make it to the shore. Soaked through, he began the arduous journey back up the bank and arrived at the banquet after the Jade Emperor had gone. The Cat was very angry with the Rat and to this day, they have never again been friends.
* The date of Chinese New Year changes each year and is usually at the end of January or the beginning of February. If you were born in January of any of these years, by the Chinese calendar you might have been born in the previous year, which belongs to the Tiger.