While most of Asia is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit, they’re celebrating the Year of the Cat in Vietnam.
The New Year celebration began on Feb. 3 and will run until Feb. 15.
How the cat came to replace the rabbit in Vietnam’s lunar zodiac, which originated in China, remains unclear. But the founding legends of the zodiac calendar may be the source of the split, some scholars say.
In China, the story is that the Buddha invited animals to take part in a race across a river and the first 12 to reach the shore would appear in the calendar.
The cat and the rat, who were close friends at the time, decided to ride on an ox’s back because they couldn’t swim. But as they approached the finish line, the rat pushed the cat into the water — and thus, the cat and the rat have been enemies ever since.
But in Vietnam, they tell the tale differently. The Jade Emperor, a Taoist god, organized the race. And in their version, the cat knows how to swim.
“There are anthropological and cultural explanations,” said Philippe Papin, an expert on Vietnamese history at the cole Pratique des Hautes tudes in Paris.
But, Papin said, since many Vietnamese have Chinese origins, it’s more likely that linguistics explains the split.
“The Chinese word for rabbit is ‘mao,’ which sounds like ‘meo’ in Vietnamese, where it means cat. As the sound of the word changed, so did its meaning,” Papin said.
No matter how it happened, most Vietnamese have no desire to dump the cat for the rabbit.
“For the Vietnamese, it’s a matter of national honor not to have copied China completely,” said Benoit de Treglode, from the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia in Bangkok.
The other 11 Vietnamese zodiac signs are buffalo (ox in China), tiger, dragon, snake, rat, horse, sheep (goat in China), monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each animal is believed to bring its own peculiar and unique energy to its year.
“It’s appropriate that the Vietnamese swapped the cat into the calendar in place of the rabbit. Rabbits are a kind of rodent and the rat is also a rodent. The animals [in the zodiac] should be different,” said pet enthusiast Nguyen Bao Sinh.
The cat helps offset the dog, its natural enemy, said Sinh, who runs a pet hotel in Hanoi that charges 500,000 dong ($26 US) a night per animal for a stay.
“This expresses a balance of yin and yang in the cosmos that is more complete, that better unifies the contradictions, and so it is richer and better to have the cat,” he added.
“Most of the Vietnamese people are farmers,” said retired actor Hoang Phat Trieu. “The rabbit has nothing to do with Vietnamese farmers, while the cat has always been a very good friend of farmers, trying to kill the rats that threaten their crops.”
But the Vietnamese year of the cat also symbolizes sensitivity, gentleness and kindness.
“The image of the cat is cultured and the nature of a cat is gentle, sociable and close to people,” said Hoang Ngoc Bao, a veterinarian and cat enthusiast.
“I want that gentleness, that sociability that is special to cats to make our society better so that we can live for the community and more humanely.”
Fashion boutique owner Khuc Hoai Thuong has had about 20 cats over the years.
“When people have a love of pets their demeanor is softened a bit,” said Thuong, who brought a two-month-old kitten to Sinh’s hotel shop for a new celebratory outfit and a grooming.
Pet shows have celebrated the coming year. A Siamese named Miss Cat was crowned Cat of the Year at a recent pet show in Hanoi.
“I hope that in the new year all people and all animals are healthy and have good luck and success,” said the cat’s owner, Nguyen Minh Ngoc.
“I also hope that in the new year there are more cat shows like this so that all the cats can show off their lovability.”