The Ox is the second animal in the Chinese zodiac. For Lunar New Year 2021, we will be ushering in the Year of the Ox. If you head to Singapore’s Chinatown during the festive season, you will find many street vendors and shopkeepers selling soft toys of the ox to commemorate the occasion.

Interestingly, in Mandarin, Singapore’s Chinatown is known as Niúchēshuǐ 牛車水 which means “bullock water-cart”. In Malay–the national language of Singapore–Chinatown is known as Kreta Ayer or water cart. The origin of the precinct’s name comes from the source of its water supply. In the 19th century, Chinatown’s water supply was principally transported by animal-driven carts.

What an amazing piece of trivia!

The Great Race

When I was a younger man than I am now, the old people used to gather us kids together and tell us about an ancient Chinese folk story called The Great Race. It goes something like this.

Once upon a time, there lived a Jade Emperor who decreed that animals would be designated for each year of the 12-year zodiac of the Chinese calendar. The animals were given the task of crossing a river. The twelve that arrived first would be selected.

The Cat and the Rat couldn’t really swim, but what they lacked in ability; they made up for with cunning. They decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hop on the back of the Ox. The kindhearted Ox agreed to carry them both across. Just as the Ox was arriving at the riverbank, the Rat pushed the Cat into the water, quickly jumped off the Ox and rushed to greet the Jade Emperor. The rat was thus named as the first animal of the zodiac calendar; and the Ox had to contend with second place.

Some folktales give us a moral lesson; others forewarn us of the hard truths of life. Some people will simply cheat to win.

Buddhist tales, however, tell a different story.

Legend has it that Gautama Buddha summoned all of the animals of the Earth to come before him prior to his departure from Earth. Only 12 animals actually came to bid him farewell. To reward the animals who greeted him goodbye, he named a year after each of them. The years were simply assigned in the order they arrived.

As you can see, there are many stories for how the Chinese zodiac came to be. We do not know which story is true or false; but what is important is that these stories are a part of the Chinese cultural heritage. Maybe it is not whether the story is true or not that really matters–but only that they continue to be told.

I have fond memories of gathering around my elders and listening to these tales from when I was a younger man than I am now. I would like to pass down these stories to my own children; and who knows–perhaps one fine day they will have the opportunity to tell these timeless tales to their own kids.

The Tale of the Ox

A long time ago–around 4000 BC–the Oxen were first harnessed and put to work. Compared to horses, oxen can carry heavier loads and push forth for a longer period. What the ox lacks in speed, it makes up for in stability.

In agricultural societies, oxen were–and are–still used for burdensome tasks such as breaking sod or plowing in wet, heavy and clay-filled soil. Oxen are professionals at transporting heavy loads in a slow and steady fashion. Much like the tortoise, the ox can teach us a lot about the slow and steady path to success. There is no need to rush to your destination. In this era of COVID, it’s a much-needed lesson that all of us need to bear in mind.

Are you in a hurry to reach the finish line or are you focused on mastering exactly where you are?

The ox teaches us the value and importance of a steady and dependable work ethic. The ox may work at a slower pace; but the ox is not ‘slow’. Oxen are patient and tenacious. We all know of people who start off strong and give up when things get difficult. But the oxen never give up. They are modest, persistent and built to last the long haul. They are not swayed by shortcuts or pyrrhic victories.

field eating animal countryside

The ox can move mountains with its humility, gentleness and kindness. Think about it–would you rather be an ox or a rat? The rat may have come first, but it is an animal that is disliked by everyone. The ox, on the other hand, is perceived in a very positive light.

Before I leave you, I would like to challenge you to think of a goal for yourself that requires the steady persistence of the ox. We live in a fast-paced world where we are all rushing to get to nowhere at all. The oxen enlighten us to slow down and enjoy each footstep on Mother Earth.

May the Year of the Ox remind us to remain steadfast and stable as we bear the burden of each footprint we leave this planet.

This post is co-authored by Dipa Sanatani and Eugene Lee

7 thoughts on “The Ox, The Great Race and The Steady Path to Success

  1. I would rather be an ox than a rat. Another wonderful story to read to my kids. And maybe who knows; they may read it to their kids as well.

  2. Hey! Where’s the fox?

    If my memory serves me right–in Vietnam they use a cat instead of a rabbit. How did this tradition come about? You are right–these stories are about heritage, not history.

    1. Once again the same fairytale-like narration with a Chinese folklore… I am so becoming a fan of this writing style!

      And like I had said before, Chinese folktales have this sense of seriousness attached to them, where they blatantly teach us about the hard realities of life. This is what I like the most about these tales. The story of “The Great Race” is one such tale. It so reminds me of the Chinese tales I used to read as a kid.

      What an amazing lesson to be learnt from the ox! To have a slow yet steady path towards success. In our hurry to reach the finish line, we fail to master the skills that we need in the long run. A very important lesson to keep in mind indeed!

      And it’s so true that we rather be the Ox and come second than be the Rat who cheats to win the first position.

      Truly a wonderful and enlightening article!

  3. LOL. I am totally a horse person. I think in Chinese astrology there is something about how different animals can come together to balance each other out. That’s also an interesting idea that you could write about!

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