Why Vietnam celebrates the Year of the Cat instead of the Rabbit

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While most Asian countries and diasporas welcomed the Lunar New Year celebrating the rabbit, Vietnam, which observes the equivalent Tết Nguyên Đán, honored a different animal: the cat.

Vietnam shares 10 of the Chinese zodiac calendar’s 12 signs, with the differences being the rabbit and the ox, which are replaced in the Vietnamese calendar with the cat and the buffalo.

The diversion is explained by several theories: one grounded in linguistics claims that at some point in history, the Chinese word for rabbit, “mao,” was misinterpreted as “meo,” the Vietnamese word for cat.

However, this “misinterpretation” is not exactly accurate, according to Doan Thanh Loc, a cultural consultant at Vietnam’s Southern Jade Pavilion Cultural Center. Instead, Loc argued it has to do with symbols used to represent “heavenly stems” and “earthly branches” that correspond with each year in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which Tết is based off of.

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“Mao doesn't necessarily mean cat or rabbit. These are just symbols we've used as code for the earthly branches,” Loc told NPR.

Another explanation stems from the Chinese and Vietnamese versions of a legend about a race that determined the roster of zodiac animals.

In the Chinese version, the rat and the cat were both on the ox when the rat pushed the cat into the water, leading to its loss. Meanwhile, the rabbit, which had been hopping on stones, luckily landed on a floating log that quickly brought it to the shore and helped it finish fourth.

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On the other hand, the Vietnamese version lacked a rabbit by default. Its cat also knew how to swim, an ability that helped it finish the race in fourth place.

Other theories focus on a more direct reverence for the cat.

Nguyen Hieu Tin, an expert on traditional Vietnamese culture, said it comes down to which animal helps with producing food.

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“Rice is a huge part of Vietnam's agriculture, but with the threat of many rats in the fields, the cats [that hunt them] are a popular animal for the Vietnamese,” Tin told the AFP news agency.

“Another explanation is that the Vietnamese don't want to observe two years with a similar animal. They see the mouse and the rabbit as being closely linked,” he added.

A slight variation makes a link to geography: while the Chinese originally lived in the savannas and got close to rabbits, the Vietnamese lived in lowland areas and preferred cats.

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“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,” UCLA lecturer Quyen Di told NPR.

Vietnamese people, on the other hand, consider rabbits as “animals that are used for food” while cats are “friends living in their house.”

Still, others say the cat simply exudes more power than the rabbit.

“I think the cat is more deserving because the rabbit is too soft. It does not have the power like a cat. I was born in the Year of the Cat also and I’m very proud of that,” one Vietnamese said, according to Inside Edition.

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