Hopping and pouncing into the new year with two furry zodiacs
Lunar New Year celebrations are significant for Sino cultures, with many shared rituals to ring in the new year and prepare for the coming of spring — like decorating with red and gold, lighting fireworks to ward off evil spirits, gifting red envelopes with “lucky money,” and deep cleaning their homes to rid their lives of lousy luck.
You might also be familiar with the 12-animal “Chinese Zodiac” associated with the Lunar New Year, where each year marks the transition from one animal to the next. In 2023, some will celebrate The Year of the Rabbit. But our friends in Vietnamese communities will celebrate this coming Lunar New Year with a different furry friend. For them, 2023 (and every 12 years) is The Year of the Cat.
This is my creative journey to uncover why this is the case.
Learning about the Cat nuance
I am a proud supporter of a local coffee shop in San Jose, California, called Academic Coffee. Hands down, it offers my hometown’s best coffee brew, freshly roasted beans, and baked goods.
After years of obsessively visiting their lovely cafe, I’ve gotten close to Academic Coffee’s Vietnamese-American proprietor, Frank Nguyen. And in the past two years, I’ve donated some of my design time to help Frank modernize his brand with illustration, identity, and packaging design. Frank is a former Marketing professional with a palette for world-class aesthetics and coffee, so it’s always been a joy to collaborate with him. Also notable: Frank and his team have been sustainability champions since Academic Coffee’s 2017 inception, ensuring all products are compostable, reusable, or recyclable. All great reasons to befriend this local entrepreneur.
So with some downtime on my hands during the holiday break, I reached out to Frank with an idea to design “Year of the Rabbit” stickers and gift card envelopes for his cafe’s Lunar New Year celebration. Something in the bubbly and playful style we’ve used on Academic’s canned beverage labels.
He wrote back from Vietnam, where he happened to be visiting with family for the holidays. He was kind and quick to educate me on my design misstep. Frank wrote:
In my Vietnamese culture, every 12 years we celebrate with a Cat zodiac, not the Rabbit. And since San Jose has a predominantly Vietnamese Asian community, most celebrations around us will include the Cat zodiac.
In contrast, up the peninsula, folks in San Francisco will celebrate Year of the Rabbit, because other Sino cultures more commonly have a rabbit in their mythology.
So, with a nudge, I was happy to start working on a new Cat zodiac illustration for Academic Coffee’s Lunar New Year celebration.
Learning about the difference was interesting, but I couldn’t help wondering why Vietnamese Asian cultures use the Cat. I’ll share some of the theories, but first, here’s some basic info on the holiday so that we’re all on the same page.
A Lunar New Year primer
Often called “Chinese New Year,” Lunar New Year is celebrated by many East Asian cultures, including Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Mongolian, and Chinese. Also known as the Spring Festival, it marks the start of the agricultural growing season, and per its name, it’s the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar based on the moon’s annual cycles or lunar months. Each lunar month is approximately 29.5 days long, so the specific Lunar New Year date varies yearly. However, it generally falls in January or February, and in 2023, the Lunar New Year will be celebrated on Sunday, January 22.
There are 12 zodiac signs represented by animals associated with the 12 lunar cycles every year. And they are presented to us in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
The history of the Lunar Zodiac
There are various legends about the origin of the lunar calendar zodiac, but one of the most popular and enduring tales is the story of the Great Race. According to this legend, the Buddha (or in at least one variation, a Taoist god called the Jade Emperor) wanted to select 12 animals to represent the lunar calendar years. So he declared that the animals would have to cross a river, and the first 12 to reach the other side would be chosen.
The rat, who was small and agile, asked the ox, who was strong but slow, to carry him across the river. The ox agreed, and the rat jumped on his back. As they were about to reach the other side, the rat ran across the ox’s back and jumped ahead of him to finish the race first. The ox, who had helped the rat, came in second. The Tiger, Rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig followed in that sequence, and these 12 animals became the 12 symbols of the Lunar zodiac. Each animal is believed to have specific characteristics associated with the people born in the year of that animal.
Now, with that bit of history, let’s return to the Vietnamese tradition of calling on the Cat as their zodiac.
So why the Cat instead of the Rabbit?
One popular explanation suggests this is simply a lost-in-translation situation. An older Chinese word associated with the rabbit in ancient Chinese culture is 卯, pronounced “mao.” This word translates to “the fourth of twelve earthly branches,” which, in the lunar zodiac, is represented by a rabbit. This pronunciation, “mao,” isn’t far off from the Vietnamese word “mèo” or “con mèo,” which means cat. It’s also very close to the modern Chinese word for cat, 貓, pronounced “ māo.” So, I find it plausible that scholars might have heard the representative word of the fourth zodiac (Mao) in another part of the Sinosphere, like Vietnam, and translated it to its literal animal definition: Cat.
Another explanation would be that most Vietnamese people are farmers, and the Rabbit isn’t as relevant to the agriculturally rich culture of their country. Instead, the Cat has always been an excellent friend to farmers, trying to kill the rats that threaten their crops. So making a change at some point in history would help the legend and Lunar zodiac resonate better within the Vietnamese-Asian culture.
Similarly, another story explains that when the zodiac symbols were introduced, there were no rabbits in the Vietnam region when they were still part of China (current North Vietnam). As the pictures of the zodiac animals spread, locals in Vietnam may have translated the look of the rabbit as that of a furry and similarly sized animal more common in their region.
Frank shared yet another story. Since we were going back and forth about the designs while he was in Vietnam, he was able to have a deeper conversation with extended family on the topic over dinner. “It became a topic of great discussion,” Frank wrote me. He told me that in Chinese mythology, the Cat was supposed to be the 13th sign but never finished the great race because it was lazy, so it was dropped from the zodiac.
In Vietnamese mythology, the Cat was always one of the 12 signs, and there was never a rabbit, to begin with. The lazy cat story, he was told, was made up to promote Chinese superiority and to associate Vietnamese people with being lazy.
It’s safe to say that Frank’s entrepreneurial spirit and his cafe’s focus on sustainability — plus all of the extraordinary richness of the Vietnamese culture in San Jose — puts the notion of laziness to bed.
Happy Lunar New Year!