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[Illustrations] The Mythological Race That Created Vietnam's Zodiac, Retold in Watercolor

After 12 years, Vietnam’s zodiac cycle will once again reset to welcome the Year of the Mouse, the first animal in the dozen.

To understand how the small but swift rodent manages to come out on top, surpassing even the magical dragon and powerful tiger, one has to go back to Chinese mythology, in a folk story entitled The Great Race. There are various versions of the myth with different details, but they all agree on the order of the animals.

Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor, the king of heaven, wanted to devise a way to measure time. He broke the news on earth of a race he’s organizing: all animals are allowed to participate, and the first 12 to make it across the river would be given a spot on the calendar. The mouse wakes up early in the morning to begin the race, but can’t swim, so he asks for the ox’s help to cross the river. The kind ungulate agrees, and when the pair get to the other side, the rat hops down first, becoming the first animal in the zodiac.

This whimsical sport event was also the subject of a set of illustrations, titled “The Great Race," by Vietnamese graphic designer Toma Nguyen. These were part of the first section of her graduation project on the Vietnamese zodiac. Deciding on a topic wasn’t easy for Toma, but her previous entry in a Year of the Rooster-themed illustration drive was well-received, so the 12 animals became the main subjects of the project.

In the paintings, they retain general biological attributes, but with stylized details taken from traditional muses like Dong Ho woodblocks and folk motifs. The end results were created with watercolor on Canson paper. Toma told Saigoneer via email that she especially loves watercolor, which was frequently utilized in school projects.

Toma Nguyen graduated from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts and is currently working as a book illustrator for a publisher, as well as taking on freelance work. Drawing has always been a crucial part of Toma’s life, from her formative years until now.

“I usually sit in a corner with a notebook to draw, on a book, on a desk, on a board or even on the ground using a pebble or on the wall using a piece of chalk,” she explains. “[Drawing] is a passion consistently present in my life from then until now, and I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to turn it from a hobby into the current job.”

Going back to Vietnamese culture for inspiration is now a thriving movement in the local creative industry, in which it seems like every day Vietnamese artists can find new threads of the country’s old aesthetics to transform into new art. These include works by the LONTA project, which looks at Vietnamese art styles throughout the years, or Hanoi-based Xuan Lam’s intricate folk painting makeovers.

On Toma’s part, she’s very much behind this new development in the local creative scene: “With this major change, I’m personally very happy, because in order to learn about new things, we have to first learn how to appreciate our own country’s beauty.”