How the Cat Claimed Its Place in the Vietnamese Zodiac

Published June 22, 2015 in Episode 9

At the end of every lunar calendar year, Vietnamese everywhere gather with friends and family to celebrate and usher in the new year, or, as most Vietnamese call it: Tết.  

The new year brings with it wishes for luck, prosperity, and good health.  It also brings a new animal; and no, I’m not talking about kids getting new pets as gifts during new year!  I’m talking about the Vietnamese zodiac.  

  (Photo: Loa)

(Photo: Loa)

The Vietnamese zodiac features a different animal for each year in the lunar calendar, with a total of 12 animals. The calendar closely resembles the ones used in neighboring countries, however, there’s one big difference. When Korea or China mark the Year of the Rabbit, Việt Nam marks the Year of the Cat.

There are several reasons for this, but one of the more popular reasons can be traced to the founding legends of the zodiac calendar. 

As the Chinese tell it, it was a story of betrayal.

In the Chinese version, Buddha has invited the animals to a race across the river, with the first 12 finishers taking a place on the calendar. The close friends Cat and Rat, realizing they are not able to swim, stow away on the Ox’s back instead, planning to ride it to the other side of the river.  Shortly before reaching the other side, two-faced rat pushes the cat into the river, securing the rat’s place on the zodiac.   

It is said that for this betrayal, the cat will hate the rat for all eternity, and it is the reason the cat always chases the rat. 

On the Vietnamese side, the story is told with a slight difference.  I defer to my mom, to tell the Vietnamese story. 

“We Vietnamese tell the story a little differently. In our story, it is the Jade Emperor that organizes the race. The cat and the rat, being lazy, also decide to ride on the back of the Ox.

The rat, being sneaky, pushes the cat into the river, but to his surprise, finds that the cat is able to swim.  

Well, the cat swims the rest of the way and is added to the zodiac calendar.  But same like the Chinese story, the cat hates the rat forever, for pushing him into the river. “

According to Professor Philippe Papain of who is the Director of Studies at the L'École pratique des hautes études in Paris, and specializes in Vietnamese History and Society, one explanation could be linguistics.   

“The Chinese word for rabbit is 'mao', which sounds like 'mèo' in Vietnamese, where it means cat. As the sound of the word changed, so did its meaning.” 

This line of argument explains why even in the Vietnamese language, when we refer to the year of the cat, we use the Hán classical Chinese word “Mao”. So in 2011, we greeted the new year with the phrase “Mừng Xuân Tân Mão” - we translated that to “Happy Year of the Cat," though Mao is the old Chinese word for rabbit. 

But whether you prefer to say “Happy New Year of the Cat” or “Happy New Year of the Cat,” you’ll have to wait until 2023 to do so.