One of the most popular tales behind how the 12 zodiac animals of the Chinese calendar secured their spot depicts an epic river race in which each creature revealed its true colours.

In Chinese culture, every year is represented by one of the 12 animals in a set consecutive order, starting with the rat and ending with the pig, with each bringing its own characteristics to the year it denominates.

In 2017, it is the turn of the rooster, who comes third last in the 12-yearly cycle.

Source: b'Soft toys meant for the new year celebrations in China | Source: AFP'

According to a frequently told ancient folk tale to explain the rota of animals, it all began when mythical deity the Jade Emperor organised a race across a river.

Frontrunners were the cat and the rat -- at that time close friends -- who had persuaded the ox to let them ride across the river on its back.

But the cunning rat had plans of its own, pushing the cat into the water and jumping ahead of the ox as it neared the other side to claim the first spot in the Chinese zodiac.

The ox came in second followed by the tiger, which also swam across.

Close behind was the agile rabbit, which hopped from rock to rock before slipping into the water and clinging to a floating log.

It was blown to the safety of the riverbank by the heroic dragon, who surprised the Jade Emperor by only managing fifth position despite its ability to fly.

The dragon said it had not only helped the rabbit but also some villagers in distress along the way.

After the snake and the horse made it over, the unlikely trio of sheep, monkey and rooster reached the bank by sharing a raft.

Bringing up there rear was the dog -- delayed because it had become distracted and could not help playing in the water.

And finally the pig, who ate too much and took a nap along the way.

The cat failed to make it across in time to secure its place in the zodiac line-up.

A victim of the rat's duplicity, from then on the two animals became mortal enemies.