While many people welcome the Year of the Rabbit, Vietnam welcomes the Year of the Cat
The Lunar New Year begins on Sunday, and over a billion people will celebrate the start of a new year, resulting in one of the world’s largest yearly migrations as people travel for family reunions.
The holiday is observed across most of Asia and the Asian diaspora, notably among Vietnamese, Chinese, and Koreans. Mongolia celebrates the event as well, but in February because the date is chosen by a different calendar system there.
While nearly everyone will welcome the Year of the Rabbit in 2023, Vietnam will usher in the Year of the Cat. Why is Vietnam different this year from the rest of the world? The Year of the Cat has a hazy history.
According to Doan Thanh Loc, a cultural expert at Vietnam’s Southern Jade Pavilion Cultural Center, one answer has to do with linguistics. It’s often assumed that the Chinese term for rabbit sounds similar to the Vietnamese word for cat, although this is not entirely correct.
The Chinese lunisolar calendar is used to establish the date of Vietnam’s Lunar New Year, commonly known as Tet Nguyen Dan. Months are determined by the moon’s and Earth’s orbits, with leap months added every few years to keep up with the solar cycle. Each year in the calendar is given a name by combining 12 earthly branches, each of which corresponds to a zodiac animal, and 10 celestial stems.
This year will be known as Quy Mao, after the tenth heavenly branch, Quy, and the fourth earthly branch, Mao. The rabbit was chosen to represent the earthly branch known as Mao in China. However, in Vietnamese, the pronunciation of Mao is extremely close to how the word “cat” is spoken. “Mao does not always signify cat or rabbit,” Doan explains. “These are simply symbols that we’ve utilized as a code for the earthly branches.”
Doan goes on to say that Vietnam hasn’t always observed the Year of the Cat, and it’s unclear when the country shifted from the rabbit to the cat in its zodiac. Many earlier Vietnamese manuscripts mention the rabbit in the zodiac. The mystery behind the rabbit-cat changeover has given rise to a number of other explanations.
Quyen Di, a UCLA academic, suggests numerous alternative theories for Vietnam’s distinctive festival. One has to do with Chinese and Vietnamese scenery.
“Originally, the Chinese lived in the savanna area, while the Vietnamese lived in the lowland area,” he says. “The people of the savanna prefer a nomadic life, close to the wilderness, and they chose the rabbit as an animal that lived in the wild fields.”
In contrast, the lowland people of Vietnam chose the more domestic cat. Additionally, Di says, Vietnamese people consider rabbits as “animals that are used for food” and chose the cat because they’re considered “friends living in their house.”
Still, these are not the only urban legends surrounding the origin of the Year of the Cat. Ask a Vietnamese auntie or grandparent, and you’re sure to hear several more stories about the Year of the Cat.
Many involve the myth of a feast held by either Buddha or the Jade Emperor and a race among the animals to determine their order in the zodiac. In some legends, the cat was disqualified from the zodiac; the rat pushed it into the river. In another, the cat finishes the race and takes its place as the fourth animal.