Turning now to Chinese folktales and legends, I begin with the story of the Chinese zodiac. There are many picture book and illustrated versions of this story for children. The basic tale goes like this: an important person/deity decides to create the first calendar and summons all the animals of China to help. He will name the first year in the twelve year cycle after the first animal that reaches him. Rat, cat, dog, pig, rooster, ox (water buffalo), tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, monkey and sheep are all invited. Although cat and rat are best friends, rat schemes to be first with a trick that shuts the unfortunate cat out of the race and destroys friendship between them and all of their descendants. Rat also takes advantage of the strength and speed of Ox (Water Buffalo) to grab a lift. Rat is triumphant, and Cat is furious.
I will be adding to this post as I find additional versions of the story.
The Great Race: the Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Dawn Casey, Illus. by Anne Wilson. 2006.
The Jade Emperor, King of Heaven, decides to create a calendar and name each year after a different animal. He holds a swimming race across the river to determine the order that the beasts should appear in the new cycle. Here, the dirty Rat actively eliminates Cat from the competition by pushing him into the river while he is asleep. He also takes advantage of Ox by riding his back across the river, but then scuttling ahead of him into first place once they arrive on dry land.
Once all the animals but cat arrive, the Jade Emperor declares that every child born in an animal's year will share the talents of that creature.
After the story, information on the Chinese calendar, its important days, and the years and characters of the twelve animals are included.
The illustrations are done in bright collage. Wilson uses repeating circles, ovals and squares, and the Jade Emperor and the animals are done with intentional simplicity, like a child's drawing.
The Cat's Tale: Why the Years Are Named for Animals by Doris Orgel, Illus. by Meilo So, 2008.
This is the same basic tale, but told in a frame story. Mao the cat and Willow the girl belong to each other. When Nai Nai, Willow's grandma, comes to watch her, the child isn't happy about it because it means that her mother has gone out. Nai Nai begins to tell the story of the Zodiac's origin, but Mao is enraged when she forgets to mention Cat, and gives her a scratch. Nai Nai is angry with Mao and Willow is mad at her Grandma, so the girl and kitty head to another room by themselves. As Willow strokes Mao, the cat tells her the real story of the Zodiac race and Rat's betrayal. The story unfolds, and Willow realizes that she has lost her stuffed pig. Fortunately, at the tale's end, Grandma appears and has the perfect way to make up with her granddaughter and Willow's feline friend.
Meilo So, who also illustrated Tasty Baby Belly Buttons, provides cheerful illustrations. Round Mao has wide amber eyes, a dear little heart shaped pink nose, and a very large indignant mouth when Nai Nai leaves Cat out of her story.
Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac. by Ed Young, 1995.
This is the same storyline, but it also follows cat's unsuccessful struggle to reach the Emperor. The animal's years and characteristics precede the tale. In the Author's Note, Young explains that the zodiac was established 5000 years ago by Emperor Huang Di. Young's illustrations are done in charcoal and pastels on Japanese rice paper.
What the Rat Told Me: a Legend of the Chinese Zodiac by Marie Sellier, Catherine Louis and Wang Fei. 2008.
It is stated on the endpapers that this story is adapted from a Chinese Buddhist legend from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE). It takes place on the morning of the dawn of the world. The animals must climb the Jade Mountain to reach the Great Emperor of Heaven. Although the rat has promised to wake the cat for the journey, he fails to do so. As each creature arrives, the Emperor praises their finest qualities. The sun rises for the first time, and the beasts take their places in the wheel of time. But, not the poor cat. The dates for each sign are given following the story.
The graphics are big and bold, all done in black, white and red. The Chinese characters for each animal, plus the emperor and the mountain, are used.
The Animals of the Chinese Zodiac by Susan Whitfield and Phillipa-Alys Browne. 1998.
Buddha wants to make a calendar and the name the years, but he becomes ill and sends his Apsaras ("flying women with magical powers") to invite the animals for a visit. So, the ladies journey to a farm, the mountains, the rivers and the plains to spread the news. This story gives more detail on the animal's behavior and travel habits. Rat is given the benefit of the doubt. Is he a trickster or just forgetful?
The animals are colored fancifully: a blue horse with a red, yellow and orange mane, a tiger with green stripes and a orchid shaded monkey.
In this picture book version, the human emperor looks for a way for all to remember the year that the prince and heir was born.
This is my favorite telling of the story, largely because of the art. Wong brings a very playful touch to the tale. On the title page, best friends Cat and Rat are shown with Rat sitting on Cat's head and dangling some string and a bell for her to play with. Ox smiles broadly at the twosome's flattery before they cross the river. Each creature is fussed over once they arrive, and a delighted Tiger is shown getting a tummy rub from one of the emperor's advisers. The art is also full of movement, from the various beasts travels through the river to the ruler's pacing with his line of advisers following him like ducklings, to the Dog shaking water off himself as he meets the emperor.