Why Vietnam celebrates the year of the cat instead of the rabbit


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While most Asian countries and diasporas greeted the Lunar New Year celebrating the rabbit, Vietnam, which observes the Tết Nguyên Đán equivalent, honored a different animal: the cat.

Vietnam shares 10 of the 12 signs of the Chinese calendar, the differences being the rabbit and the ox, which are replaced in the Vietnamese calendar by the cat and the buffalo.

The hijacking can be explained by several theories: one based on linguistics claims that at some point in history, the Chinese word for rabbit, “mao”, was misinterpreted like “meo”, the Vietnamese word for cat.

However, this “misinterpretation” is not entirely correct, according to Doan Thanh Loc, cultural consultant at the Jade Pavilion Cultural Center of Southern Vietnam. Instead, Loc argued that it had to do with the symbols used to represent the “heavenly rods” and “earthly branches” that correspond to each year of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, on which Tết is based.

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“Mao does not necessarily mean cat or rabbit. These are just symbols that we used as code for the earth branches,” Loc told NPR.

Another explanation comes from the Chinese and Vietnamese versions of a Legend about a race that determined the list of zodiac animals.

In the Chinese version, the rat and the cat were both on the ox when the rat pushed the cat into the water, resulting in its downfall. Meanwhile, the bunny, who was jumping on rocks, luckily landed on a floating log which quickly brought him back to shore and helped him finish fourth.

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In contrast, the Vietnamese version lacked the default bunny. Her cat could also swim, an ability that helped her finish the race in fourth place.

Other theories focus on a more direct reverence for the cat.

Nguyen Hieu Tin, an expert on traditional Vietnamese culture, said it depends on which animal helps produce food.

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“Rice is an important part of Vietnamese agriculture, but with the threat of many rats in the fields, cats [that hunt them] are a popular animal for the Vietnamese,” Tin told the AFP Press Agency.

“Another explanation is that the Vietnamese don’t want to observe two-year-olds with a similar animal. They see the mouse and the rabbit as closely related,” he added.

A slight variation makes a link with geography: while the Chinese originally lived in the savannahs and related to rabbits, the Vietnamese lived in the plains and preferred cats.

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“The people of the savannah prefer a nomadic life, close to the wilderness, and they chose the rabbit as an animal that lived in the wild fields,” Quyen Di, a UCLA professor, told NPR.

The Vietnamese, on the other hand, consider rabbits as “food animals” while cats are “friends living in their house”.

Yet others say the cat simply gives off more power than the rabbit.

“I think the cat is more deserving because the rabbit is too soft. He doesn’t have the power of a cat. I was born in the year of the cat too and I’m very proud of that,” a Vietnamese man said, according to Interior Edition.

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