Tomorrow sees the arrival of the Year of the Rooster. The Chinese zodiac sign is usually called “Rooster” in English, although the word in Mandarin (鸡, jī) is the same word used for chicken. The Rooster is associated with punctuality because it greets the dawn every day. As anyone who’s ever lived near one will know, real roosters also crow all day long. However recent research has established that they do indeed have an internal body clock which triggers them to crow at sunrise, even if they can’t actually see the sun.
Roosters are also considered to be brave, with their call popularly believed to banish ghosts. Children were once taught to imitate a cockcrow if they encountered a ghost at night. It’s also interesting to note that in the west, vampires were also believed to fear the sound of a rooster. Again, this association has a basis in reality. Cocks are naturally aggressive, and will fight for hours, often to the death. Cockfighting as a bloodsport is banned in most parts of the world, but a city in Xinjiang controversially announced last year that it was building its tourism strategy around the tradition.
Understandably, for an animal historically so important as a food source, there are many Chinese folktales about the Rooster. One tells of how the bird was originally considered too lowly and was left out of the zodiac. However, he demonstrated his worth by waking all the animals at dawn, and was rewarded for his hard work by being included in the pantheon. (Industriousness is another quality associated with the sign.)
According to another source, the Rooster once had a fine pair of horns. The Dragon, then an undistinguished beast, asked to borrow them. The Rooster was initially reluctant, as he didn’t know the Dragon, but the Dragon’s cousin Centipede promised his relative would return them. Once the Dragon had the horns though he flew away rejoicing, and has kept them ever since. The Rooster was furious with the Centipede, and to this day can be seen scratching in the earth and trying to catch him.
Sometimes the Rooster is responsible for his own downfall. Another story concerns King Rooster, who tried to lead all his flock away from the farmyard into the wilderness in search of better food. Only his secretary would accompany him, and when the secretary caught a beetle the Rooster insisted it was handed over to him, so the secretary went home in dudgeon. When the King returned to the farm, he was furious with his flock for not following him, and began attacking them. The farmer tried to make peace, but the Rooster flew up into a tree crying “I don’t care about you! I don’t care about you!” – and then was carried off by an eagle who’d been attracted by the noise.
The moral of this story, as recounted by Mary Hayes Davis and Chow Leung in the 1908 book Chinese Fables and Folk Stories, is that “No position in life is so high that it gives the right to be proud and quarrelsome.” Following the unpredictable year of the mischievous Monkey, which brought a spate of deaths of much-loved celebrities and tumultuous political events in the US and the UK, we can only hope this is a lesson our leaders have learned.