Year of the Rabbit or the Cat? – Depends on who you ask

By Indunil Usgoda Arachchi

Attendees at the Tết festival in Seattle filled out Tết passports this past weekend. (Photo by Indunil Usgoda Arachchi)

Lunar New Year launch celebrations have been spectacular everywhere this year. But curiously, the animal of 2023 is not the same for all celebrations.

While 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit for the Chinese and some others celebrating the Lunar New Year, it is the Year of the Cat for the Vietnamese and some others.

“It’s the year of the cat for the Vietnamese,” said Angela Trương, executive director of Tết in Seattle. “Therefore, we used the sign of the cat for the Tet holiday this time.”

Seattle’s Tết holds the Tết Festival each year to celebrate the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and the cultural roots of Vietnamese Americans. It took place on January 14 and 15 at the Seattle Center showcasing, promoting and providing a hands-on experience of arts, music, performance and food unique to Vietnam.

The cat had become a major theme among all. Children painted the cats and young people took photos with the background of the cat at the cultural village of the Tết festival. In addition, toy cats were given as gifts for the festival games.

“The Vietnamese zodiac calendar and the Chinese zodiac calendar are very similar to each other,” Trương added. “Last year was the year of the tiger for both zodiacs and 2024 is the year of the dragon, but the fourth zodiac animal is very different from ours.”

Both zodiac calendars follow a 12-year cycle and each year is represented by one of the 12 animals on their zodiacs. In the Chinese calendar, these are the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Serpent, the Horse, the Goat, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog and the Pig.

These differences and confusion did not occur for the first time this year as 12 animals follow the 12-year cycles. Previously, 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927 and 1915 were also Cat years.

“There are many legends behind this difference in animal signs,” said Annie Nguyen, director of education for Tết in Seattle.

“These are interesting, but the real reason behind these differences is unverifiable.”

Nguyen recalled the popular folk tale of the cat’s absence from the Chinese zodiac, known as “The Great Race”. According to this story, the rat tricked the cat and the cat could not reach the finish line as all the zodiac animals were heading towards the Jade.

“There is another explanation about an old Chinese word for rabbit and cat that sounded similar, leading to an error for the Vietnamese zodiac,” she said. “These all appear to be legends and all lead to arguments.”

The usefulness of the cat for the farmers in Vietnam rather than the rabbit is another legend. “The cat is very friendly and very helpful compared to the rabbit,” she added.

Although there seem to be many legends about it, none seems to be certain. And while these symbols are believed to have originated in China and later spread to other countries, various scholars are now challenging these views as well.

According to the National Museum of Asian Arts, not only in the Vietnamese zodiac but also in the Gurung zodiac (Central Nepal), the cat replaces the rabbit. In the Malay zodiac, the mouse-deer replaces the rabbit.

However, it seems there are also more differences when considering a few other zodiac signs. In the Thai zodiac, the Dragon becomes the Naga. In the Japanese zodiac, the Pig becomes the Boar.

Meanwhile, some brand companies introduced new products to customers for Lunar New Year with cat and rabbit patterns.

While the diversity of communities brings color to society, the diversity of celebrations adds more liveliness.

Indunil can be contacted at [email protected]