Editor’s note: Thanks to all the readers who pointed out that mao is not rabbit in Mandarin or Cantonese. We got this information from a news source that quoted Philippe Papin, an expert on Vietnamese history at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He was quoted as saying, “The Chinese word for rabbit is ‘mao’, which sounds like ‘meo’ in Vietnamese, where it means cat. As the sound of the word changed, so did its meaning.” Vivian (reporter) sent Papin an e-mail to find out more on what he meant and he responded with:
Actually, the article of AFP has been printed before I could check what was written exactly, and the consequence is that my quoting is a bit confusing, too fast, not precise enough. But it’s not false. I will try to explain the problem.
1/ The Chinese word for Rabbit is “tu” (兔), while “mao” (猫) also means Cat. No possible confusion at this step.
2/ But there is a little-used word for Rabbit in old Chinese (卯) that’s also pronounced mao. Chinese people used this little-used word since a long time, and even now (year 乙卯 for example). They could have confused both, because of the sound, but they did not.
3/ But in Vietnam, people made the confusion (willingly or not, I dont’t know) : (Rabbit 卯 sounds mao) —> (mao read like 猫 = Cat). And this mao becomes mèo in vietnamese, since a long time, strengthened the confusion
4/ Vietnamese people used to do that, I mean they used to change the meaning of some Chinese character following the sound. It’s not the first time, and that’s why I believe they did it in this precise case.
We also found this explanation, which echoes Papin.
Does it all make sense? Let us know your thoughts.
By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
People who celebrate the Lunar New Year have a lot to look forward to in the Year of the Rabbit. 2011 is a rarity in the 12 zodiac animals. While the Chinese celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, the Vietnamese celebrate the Year of the Cat.
The Chinese zodiac has 12 signs with an animal to represent each branch of the 12-year cycle. The animals that make up the cycle (in order) are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Legend of the cat’s absence in the Chinese zodiac
There is a folk story that explains how each animal in the Chinese zodiac was given their place in the 12-year cycle.
According to the website of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh chapter, the Buddha summoned all the animals together for a banquet, so he could assign them a particular year in the cycle.
Animals were bestowed a year in the order of their arrivals. When the cat heard the news, he notified his friend, the rat, and the two made plans to go together the next day.
However, the cat lived up to its lazy reputation and slept in the next morning. As the rat did not bother to wake up his friend, the cat did not make it to Buddha’s meeting. He was not given a year in the Chinese zodiac. This legend not only clarifies the cat’s absence from the zodiac, but also explains why cats hate rats — the rat betrayed the cat.
Meanwhile, the rat made its way to the assembly, but not without more tricks.
Knowing that it would be hard to beat the larger animals to the meeting, the rat enlisted the help of the ox, who allowed the rodent to ride on its head. The two continued on their journey together. But right before their arrival, the rat jumped off the ox’s head and rushed to the finish line first.
The rat’s wily ways earned him the first year in the zodiac cycle followed by the ox.
How did the cat replace the rabbit in the Vietnamese zodiac?
Though there are various explanations of why the cat replaced the rabbit in the Vietnamese zodiac, the most plausible and popular theory suggests that the word for rabbit in Chinese, mao, sounds like the word for cat in Vietnamese. Because the two words sound similar, the Vietnamese may have accidentally written down cat, instead of rabbit, when transcribing the Chinese zodiac.
There are three types of horoscope cats in the Vietnamese zodiac: water cats, wood cats, and metal cats. 2011 is a metal cat year, which is considered lucky for the Vietnamese. The metal cat represents strength, resilience, and determination. People born in the Year of the Cat are known for their attentiveness, sensitivity, and compassion.
However, one should not give others a cat for the Lunar New Year, according to Vietnamese superstitions.
In the Vietnamese language, the word cat, mèo, sounds similar to the word nghèo, which means poverty in Vietnamese. Pronunciation, yet again, wreaks havoc for the cat. Thus, the gift of a cat would indicate that the giver wishes poverty upon its recipient.
The cat is not the only animal replaced in the Vietnamese zodiac. The Year of the Goat replaces its sheep counterpart in the Chinese zodiac, although the word for the two animals is the same in Chinese.
And while the Vietnamese zodiac uses the same animals as the Chinese zodiac for the remaining 10 years of the cycle, the ox sign is usually considered to be a water buffalo in the Vietnamese zodiac. ♦
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.