Return of the Rat: Chinese Lunar New Year honors the trickster

About a week after New Year’s Day, I discovered a rat in my backyard. It scampered behind a potted plant and froze there, conscious that it was being watched.

Of course, I wanted it gone. I threw a rock at it to scare it away. The rat scrambled through the side alley into the street, where it disappeared.

In my world, rats are not to be honored but exterminated. On the other hand, the rat is number one on the Chinese zodiac calendar, the first creature in that cycle of astrological symbols.

As the story goes, a mythological Chinese emperor asked all the animals to compete in a race to see which ones would become part of the calendar. The rat was the most cunning, tricking the ox into giving him a ride across a river, then leaping off at the last minute to cross the finish line first.

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Rats are now symbols of intelligence and they’re cunning, clever tricksters.

“A lot of famous writers are rats,” said Haibin Wechsler, a Chinese cultural educator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “Shakespeare is a rat. Truman Capote is a rat. Charlotte Bronte is also a rat.”

The rat comes around every 12 years in the Chinese calendar, each time associated with a cycle of five elements. 2020 is the metal rat; 2008 was the earth rat; 1996 was the fire rat; etc. The combination of animals and elements repeats every 60 years.

The astrological qualities of rats are only associated with the symbol and the people born under it. Actual rats are as reviled in China as they are everywhere else.

“You’re going to see a lot of red decorations in a form of a cute rat,” Wechsler said. “Very cute. Obviously something you would never see on the street.”

I had hoped that my backyard visit by the neighborhood rat at the beginning of the year would be a portentous sign, an astrological gesture for a lucky year ahead. But it doesn’t work that way.

In fact, your birth year is considered ominous. People who were born under the sign of the rat should brace for a year of hardship.

“The solution to counter these problems is to wear red things,” Wechsler said. “Red underwear, red socks, red belts, red jewelry to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck.”

This weekend, Lunar Year celebrations happen all across the city, with a major Lion Dance parade in Chinatown on Sunday.

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