The 2021 Lunar New Year, better known as Chinese New Year, begins Friday. 2021 is the Year of the Ox, or Cow. According to chinesefortunecalendar.com, it is, more specifically, a White Metal Cow Year.
Most folks know that the Chinese zodiac consists of 12 animals, rotating each year. But the entire cycle lasts 60 years, as each year is also designated with one of the five elements: metal, water, wood, fire and earth. Those elements are associated with the colors white, black, green, red and brown, respectively. Don’t ask why water is black and not blue; I also wondered but couldn’t find an explanation.
Zodiacally speaking, my mother is a cow and proud of it. She was born in the Year of the Wood (Green) Cow and she says her mother often told her that she behaved just like a cow, unhurried and easygoing. Me, I’m a fire (red) rooster. To her credit, Mom never accused me of being noisy and flamboyant like my birth animal, even when others nicknamed me Chatty Cathy.
But I digress. That’s what chatty Kathys do, I guess.
There are several explanations for the order of zodiac animals; the most widely accepted is the story of The Great Race. The jade emperor invited all the animals in the world to this race, but only 12 showed up in time for the start. As a reward, the emperor said he would name a year after each, with the order decided by the race results.
The course included a large river right before the finish line. The clever rat caught a ride on the back of the gentle ox, and as they reached the river bank, the rat leapt off the ox and scurried across the finish line first. The strong river current threw the athletic tiger a bit off course, but it managed to reach the end just after the ox.
The rabbit was next. Clinging to a floating log, it would have been swept down the river if not for the kindly dragon, which, upon seeing the rabbit’s plight, used its mighty breath to blow the little creature to the other side.
The horse would have finished in sixth place, if not for the crafty hitchhiking snake. As the finish line came into view, the snake uncoiled itself from the horse’s leg and quickly slithered across.
The sheep, monkey and rooster teamed up to build a raft and sailed across the river together. But once they reached land, it was every animal for itself. The sheep, being larger, crossed the line just ahead of the monkey, with the rooster trailing in 10th place.
The playful dog had actually entered the river ahead of the others, but was distracted by the splashing current. Taking a break to frolic in the water, the dog finally emerged to take 11th place.
The pig had stopped to eat, then, having gorged itself, fell asleep. Upon awakening from its nap, it lumbered along and finally finished the race in last place.
Six years ago, on the occasion of her 90th birthday, my mother had the Japanese word yukkuri (meaning “slowly” or, in Mom’s words, “take it easy”) tattooed on her forearm along with a smiling purple cow. The next day, she approached her friends at the Kaunoa lunch site with her hands behind her back. She began reciting:
“I’ve never seen a purple cow; I never hope to see one. But I can tell you anyhow . . .”
(Pause for effect)
“I’ve got one!” Grinning broadly, she revealed her new tattoo.
Apologies to Gelett Burgess. Yes, Gelett Burgess. Nearly everyone, including me, has attributed the rhyme to Ogden Nash. But Burgess (Jan. 30, 1866 — Sept. 17, 1951) is the true author of the poem, the full title of which is “The Purple Cow (Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, at Least).” Incidentally, I don’t know whether he knew it or not, but Burgess was born in the Year of the Cow.
A few years after the publication and ensuing popularity of “The Purple Cow,” he wrote a sequel of sorts.
Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”
I’m sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you anyhow
I’ll kill you if you quote it.
Again, apologies to Mr. Burgess. Take it easy, sir.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.