Chinese New Year - the swimming race

Adapted by Jan Payne

Long ago, in China, the Emperor wanted a new way of measuring time. A different sort of New Year.

‘Let us name the years after animals!’ he said.

The people listening, frowned. ‘Which animals shall we choose?’ they asked.

‘We’ll have a swimming race!’ said the Emperor. ‘The first twelve animals to swim across the river will have a year named after them.’

The animals were excited. ‘I would like to be the first to cross the river,’ said the Cat. ‘Then I will have year one named after me.’

‘Let us cross together,’ said her friend, the Rat.

‘But, dear Rat,’ said the Cat, ‘I am not a good swimmer. I am worried I might drown.’

The Rat had a suggestion. ‘We will ride on the back of the Ox,’ he said.

The Cat was relieved. ‘I’m going to have a sleep,’ she said to the Rat. ‘When the race starts please wake me.’

‘You can rely on me,’ said the Rat.

But when the race started the Rat didn’t wake the Cat. He wanted to win the race himself. He jumped on the Ox’s back.

The other animals began to get ready. The Tiger, the Horse, the Dog and the Pig could all swim. They looked at the river and shrugged their shoulders. ‘No problem at all!’ they said.

The Rabbit, the Goat, the Snake, the Monkey and the Rooster, weren’t so sure.

‘I can’t swim at all,’ said the Monkey.

‘Neither can I,’ said the Goat.

‘I hate getting my feet wet,’ said the Rooster.

The Dragon, who could swim and fly, felt sorry for them. ‘I’ll help you,’ he said. The Dragon cut some pieces of bamboo and made a raft. ‘Climb on,’ he said to the animals who couldn’t swim. ‘I will blow you to the other side.’

They all got on the raft, except the Rabbit. ‘I shall make my own way,’ he said.

The Dragon took a deep breath and blew as hard as he could. Flames belched out of his mouth.

‘You’ve singed my feathers!’ screeched the Rooster.

‘Sorry,’ said the Dragon. He blew again. More gently this time. Slowly, the raft began to move.

Further down the river, the Tiger and the Horse waded in. In front of them was the Ox. He was such a strong swimmer he was already halfway across. You could just see the crafty Rat holding on to his horns.

Soon the river was full of animals. The Ox and the Rat were in the lead. The Tiger was next - followed by the Horse. The Dragon had got the hang of just how much air to blow out of his nose and the raft was moving at a steady pace.

Last to start were the Dog and the Pig. The Dog had a juicy bone to celebrate. The Pig was wallowing in some mud.

‘Hurry up, you two!’ said the Rabbit.

‘What about you?’ said the Pig. ‘You haven’t started yet.’

‘I have a plan,’ said the Rabbit. 'Rabbits are really good hopping. I am going to hop across!’ he said.

‘You can’t hop on water,’ said the Dog.

‘I don’t intend to,’ said the Rabbit, and he hopped onto a log that was floating in the river.

The Ox and the Rat were nearly there. ‘One last push!’ shouted the Rat.

‘It’s easy for you,’ mumbled the Ox, trying not to get water in his mouth, ‘you haven’t done any of the work.’

But the Rat wasn’t listening. Before the Ox had reached the bank, the Rat leapt off his back and landed on the grass.

‘I declare myself the winner!’ he shouted, punching the air with his tiny fists.

‘You cheated!’ said the Ox crossly, clambering out after him.

‘I don’t care!’ said the Rat.

After the Ox came the Tiger. The Rabbit hopping from log to log was next. The animals on the raft were nearly there. The Dragon was still blowing them from behind.

Suddenly, there was a loud neighing sound. The Horse was in trouble. He had been caught in the strong current and was being carried downstream.

‘I’m coming!’ called the Dragon.

With a beat of his mighty wings he skimmed across the water, lifted up the Horse and landed with him on the river bank.

The swimming race was almost over.

‘First year in the Chinese calendar goes to the Rat!’ announced the Emperor. Nobody cheered. The Rat didn’t deserve the honour given to him.

‘Second, is the Year of the Ox - and third is the Year of the Tiger!’

The Emperor continued. ‘Then we have - the Year of the Rabbit – the Year of the Dragon – the Year of the Snake – the Year of the Horse – the Year of the Goat – the Year of the Monkey - and the Year of the Rooster. The Dog and the Pig are eleventh and twelfth. Well done all of you!’

That night there was a big celebration. There was dancing and fireworks and good things to eat. But there was one animal who didn’t join in. When the Cat found out what the Rat had done, she never spoke to him again.

‘You are no longer my friend!’ she said.

And from that day to this, cats and rats remain mortal enemies.

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