Did you know that the cat is a symbol of good fortune in the Eastern zodiac? We explain why the cat isn’t one of the 12 zodiac animals, how a legend made cats a symbol of luck in East Asia, and the way that calico cats are considered the luckiest cat of the Lunar New Year!
Stories from East Asia tell how the 12 year cycle of the Eastern zodiac calendar was named for animals who competed in a race held by the Emperor of Heaven. The Emperor was devising a way to measure the years of the calendar and declared that a great race would be held for all animals to compete in. The first 12 animals to finish would each have a year named for them. The cat and the rat were friends at the time, but the rat wanted to increase his chances of winning a spot among the 12 zodiac animals. So, the rat lied to the cat, telling him that the race had been postponed. The rat was the very first animal to finish the race, so a year was named for him. Meanwhile, the cat was taking a nap, unaware that the race had already happened. When the cat woke up and learned the truth about what occurred, he was furious with the rat, and the two animals have been enemies ever since.
Other versions of the zodiac race story say that the cat and the rat were both in the race, but that the rat betrayed the cat by pushing him into water. In that situation, the cat had trouble swimming and it took a long time for him to get to shore. By the time the cat crossed the finish line, all 12 zodiac spots were full.
However, the Vietnamese version of the zodiac cycle includes the cat as one of the 12 animals. The Vietnamese zodiac calendar replaces the Year of the Rabbit, the fourth year in the cycle, with a Year of the Cat. Lunar New Year tradition in Vietnam says that the cat successfully completed the race, without any mention of the rabbit. Scholars have many theories on why the cat replaced the rabbit in Vietnamese legend. According to NPR, one possibility is that astrological translations from Chinese to Vietnamese long ago involved the word “Mao,” which also sounds like the word for “cat” in Vietnamese. Another possibility is that cats have been domesticated for thousands of years in Vietnam, and Vietnamese culture considered cats to be trustworthy companions, whereas they viewed rabbits as game to be hunted for food.
Fortunately, the cat also appears outside of Vietnam in Lunar New Year celebrations, albeit in a role unassociated with the 12 zodiac animals. The lucky cat statue, or maneki neko, is a common Lunar New Year symbol that began in Japan. The blog Weninchina shares a potential origin story for this New Year decoration:
“Near the temple of Gotoku-ji near modern Tokyo, a traveling noble and his entourage were taking shelter under a tree from a storm. They were welcomed by a cat with a raised paw, who beckoned the party into the temple. Shortly after, the spot where the travelers had stood was struck by lightning. The wealthy lord befriended the priest of the temple and brought it prosperity. When the cat died, a statue was made in its honor. Today, the temple is a shrine and cemetery for cats!”
Originally crafted from ceramics, maneki neko statues today are made from a wide variety of materials and come in many forms and sizes. A maneki neko can symbolize different intentions based on its pose. According to Japan Wonder Travel Blog, “If the cat is waving its left paw, it is inviting customers into the store or restaurant behind it. When the right paw is up, the cat is inviting good fortune and money for the owner.” Many maneki neko are shown with a gold token for prosperity and a collar with a bell, which historically indicated that a cat belonged to a wealthy owner.
Colors also play a big role in the symbolism of maneki neko. If you have a calico cat, your cat is considered the luckiest of all! Japan Wonder Travel Blog writes that maneki neko designed to look like calicos bring the best luck of all the color combinations. White maneki neko symbolize “positivity and happiness,” while black ones bring good luck in the form of “protection.” Red or pink maneki neko symbolize luck in romance, while gold ones encourage financial prosperity. Though less common, green maneki neko symbolize luck in “health and education” and blue ones are heralds of luck in “wisdom and success.”
At Armarkat, we believe all cats are good luck and we wish you a wonderful Lunar New Year full of happiness for you and your kitties!
Quote of the day: "I gave an order to a cat, and the cat gave it to its tail." - Chinese Proverb
Japan Wonder Travel Blog, “What is Maneki Neko? The Lucky Cat”
NPR, “While many ring in the Year of the Rabbit, Vietnam celebrates the cat”
Weninchina, “Lucky Cats”