Ripples appeared on the smooth surface of the sea, and the Dragon rose from the depths of waters, to visit, like all twelve years, his children. He took off to the sky, and by pulling a fiery frisk behind, he began to fly towards the capital of the empire. On the screen it was well seen how rapidly were left behind the characteristic landscapes of China down there, the coastal fishing villages, the tile roofs of medieval towns, the eroded hills accompanying the Pearl River. It was eight then, at least in China, because at us one past noon, as we were sitting with Zhen at the Lunar New Year’s table covered with twenty-eight plates, and watching that in the four hours, until the Dragon arrives to the capital, which program is announced by the government to the people of China over the next year.
The Lunar New Year TV show always presents in an easy-to-follow way what is in store for the country in that year, what the government expects from the country’s people, with particular emphasis on the most important values in that particular year. This year, the most important value is the extended family, announced the show: let us compensate for the declining European and American export with solidarity within the family and by supporting each other, thus preserving ourselves for better times. The performers were families of artists, and the audience were also families invited from all over the country, each sitting around a small New Year’s table, for the very first time in the history of the New Year’s shows, as far as I remember. The largest family is of course the whole people of China living all over the world, and consequently the show – again for the first time – had the title The Chinese World. Most of the scenes took place in family apartments, in the projected backgrounds of which you could see, as if through the windows, the modern housing estates in construction. And the show – also for the first time – was determined by a retro feeling, by the nostalgy for the reform period and first prosperity in the late 80s, by the songs of those times, which are also the best way now to forge solidarity between the generations.
We, on our part, greet the Lunar New Year with Igor Oleynikov’s picture book of 2010: Легенда о Восточном календаре, “Legend of the Eastern calendar”. The book’s success is indicated by its many Far Eastern translations and by the fact that it is used even in China to teach to the children the figures of the Chinese zodiac and their properties.
One of the world’s oldest calendars, the Chinese calendar, called the Great Circle of Time, was composed five thousand years ago. The circle, just like a cake, is divided into twelve equal articles, which were distributed among eleven animals and the Dragon.
According to the legend, in ancient times people did not know how to keep track of the years. This was taught to them by the Jade Emperor. One day he ordered his servants to bring to him the twelve most worthy creatures in the earth. The servants went about the world, and collected eleven animals plus the Dragon. On the appointed day they all appeared before the Jade Emperor: the Dragon, the Ox, the Horse, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Goat, the Pig, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dog, the Cat and the Rat. The latter two were inseparable friends at that time, they went everywhere together, so they also appeared together in the court of the Emperor.
The Heavenly Emperor wanted to designate twelve princes for the Time. After all, there was only so much space on the Great Circle of Time. But when greeting the appeared, he saw with surprise that they are one more. After a short thinking he announced that the next morning all of them have to cross the River of Time. He would be waiting for them in his palace across the river with magical gifts: twelve sacks, each of them containing one-twelfth of the world’s remaining years. The first who comes would receive the first year of the Great Circle, and the last one would be left without a gift.
At night the animals and the Dragon gathered together around the fire before the competition of the next day. All of them were thinking about how to be the first to cross the River. Five of them were crouched sad, like a black cloud: the Goat, the Rooster, the Monkey, and the two inseparable friends, the Cat and the Rat. They were unable to swim.
When everyone was asleep, the Cat and the Rat pulled over whispering. In fact, they knew that among all animals the Ox is the simplest and most benevolent, so they tried to trick him.
The two cunning creatures found the Ox in his garden, as he was so diligent that he could not go to sleep before having a last visit of his rice beds. The Cat and the Rat began like this:
– Dear Ox, you swim the best, and you are so strong! The only problem is that you have such a bad sight and it is difficult for you to find the right direction…
– You’re right, kids, but what can I do?
– We can help you. Swim with us. The Cat, whose eyes are so sharp, will show you the way. We will make you the winner, Ox!
– You are true friends, I thank you gratefully. I will make a little wooden raft, binding it on my back, so you can swim easier with me. How wonderfully you have planned everything!
So they came to an agreement.
The Rat did not sleep a wink in the night. So much he wanted to win! So much he wanted to be the first! He, the smallest and most insignificant of all the animals! At last the moment came to show: he is also worth something. The rats are very clever animals, and he already knows the solution, lest he forgets to take the most important thing: a long, flexible pole!
The morning came, they had to go. The raft was ready, fabricated by the Ox for the two friends. He even made a small armchair for the Rat.
The Cat was standing between the two horns of the Ox, from there he directed him which way to swim.
(The same picture from the Korean edition of the book, with the sail translated into Korean).
And when they almost reached the far bank, the Rat grabbed the pole, with a run-up he pushed it against the nape of the Ox, jumped high into the air, and hop! he flew over the Ox’s head and ended up on the shore.
The only problem was that while jumping, he pushed the Cat who fell into the water. He almost drowned, and a strong current took him to the depths.
Fortunately, he could hold onto the fishes’ pagoda, so he did not get far away from the coast.
The Ox, as soon as he felt the ground under the hooves, struggled out of the water. His glasses fell off in the meantime, so he did not even realize what happened.
The Rat was running before him, pointing somewhere with his arm, and the Ox followed him. But the deceitful Rat was so thirsty for victory that by leaving him behind he first burst into the Heavenly Palace. There he stopped in front of the Jade Emperor, and the tired Ox soon followed him.
– I can see now who will be the first two animals of the Great Circle of Time. Rat, you have surprised me. As I promised, yours is the first year… But you will pay dearly for your victory, you and all your descendants to the end of time. And you, Ox, receive the next year for your kindness and endurance.
At this moment appeared the Tiger, the noblest of all animals. He saw how hard the Ox was swimming, and he had not the heart to precede him. He was happy with the third place, received for his generosity. He tenderly took the magic bag in his paws, and by pulling aside, he started exploring its content.
The fourth year of the Great Circle of Time was given to the Rabbit who jumped over the cliffs overhanging the river, holding his umbrella over himself against the heat.
Everyone knows that the most important task of the Dragon is the protection of lands, treasures, family values and traditions. The most valuable ones he always carries with himself in well-sealed clay jars tied on his back. Every dragon is a very fast and fearsome creature, so it would have been no great effort to the Dragon to arrive the first at the Heavenly Palace. But the dragons never forget about their tasks. In the morning he first had to go about all his possessions and collect the valuables assigned to him. Only after this he could go to the palace, where he arrived the fifth. The Jade Emperor gave him the fifth year for his sense of duty.
The Horse rapidly swam across the river, but on the shore he noticed the Ant-Hill and the Ants bustling around it. He could not go on the shore without injuring one of these workaholics. While looking the way out, the Snake quickly slithered ashore between the ants, and he was awarded with the sixth year for his mundane wisdom.
When the Horse finally struggled ashore, carefully avoiding any building and their inhabitants, he arrived the seventh at the Heavenly Palace. The Jade Emperor gave him the seventh year for his compassion and carefulness.
Remember that at the beginning of the story there were five animals who could not swim? We already know how the Cat and the Rat helped themselves, but what happened to the Goat, the Monkey and the Rooster? Well, they built a raft! The intelligent and attentive Monkey saw how the Ox did it, and he imitated him. The Rooster supervised the building, and the Goat, who is always an obedient and friendly companion, helped them. All night along they collected wood, and in the morning they tied them up. With what, you ask? Well, with friendship and of course with ropes. They started the last, with long poles pushing themselves off the shore.
The glorious Jade Emperor gave them the eighth, ninth and tenth year of the Great Circle. As it was difficult to determine their order, the Jade Emperor gave them the awards by size: to the Goat for his collaboration, the Monkey for his intelligence and the Rooster for the good distribution and supervision of the work. The call of the Jade Emperor made eternal friends the three animals. They did not care that the others preceded them: the most important thing was that they found each other.
There was one more good swimmer: the Pig. He quickly swam across the River, and could have received one of the first gifts of the Jade Emperor, were he not so crazy about wallowing. He would have not omitted any lukewarm puddle, and he dipped in all of them along the shore.
Right next o him it was the drenched and tired Dog to struggle out of the water, loudly chattering from the cold: “bow-bow-bow”. Now, dogs have a very strong sense of responsibility, and the most important thing to them is that everyone and everything be in order around the house. So he ran to and fro between the Palace and the animals landing on the shore, chattering all the way, and so do his offspring, whose barking imitates the cough of the first Dog. He also reminded the Pig about why he swam across the River at all, and accompanied him to the Palace. For his responsibility he received the eleventh year.
Behind him trotted the Pig, after with great difficulty he dragged himself out of the warm mud. The Jade Emperor gave him the twelfth year for his being so able to enjoy life.
But I am sure that our dear and attentive readers are already concerned: what happened finally to the Cat? He turned up from the river only after the Jade Emperor distributed his twelve gifts. The Emperor has long disappeared behind the clouds, and the twelve princes of the year were standing at the gate, rejoicing over their victory. But the Rabbit hearkened to the arrival of the Cat, and his heart was filled with compassion. The Rabbit, who is a great friend of peace, happily offered to the Cat to reign together over the years allotted to him. This is why the various Eastern calendars differ in who owns the fourth year: the Rabbit or the Cat? But we know well how it happened.
The Cat looked up in a fury to the treacherous Rat on the hilltop. While they were friends before, from now on he did not leave a peaceful minute to the Rat. As the Jade Emperor predicted, all the nation of the rats pays for the slyness of the Rat. There is not a rat or mouse in the world who are not scared of the cat. And these clever animals are forced to live all their lives in burrows and holes from the sharp claws of the descents of the Cat.