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Special> Video> Beijing Review Exclusive
UPDATED: February 1, 2008 NO.6 FEB.7, 2008
The Year of the Rat
In Chinese the identification of one's birth year and sign is known as ben ming nian. Why is it so special to people compared with other years?

Red was significant in many areas of Chinese life. In olden days, if an army gained a victory, a special messenger would report the news holding a red flag. If a student gained top marks in a royal examination for selecting officials, they would go home dressed in a red robe and hat. Even in traditional operas, the positive roles showing upright, loyal and brave qualities would find the faces of the actors painted red.

Following traditional custom, on the eve of the Spring Festival, people will wear clothes or decorations in red to meet their ben ming nian, believing that only in this way will they keep bad luck at bay in the coming year.

Tales of Rat

In traditional belief, almost every animal in the zodiac has merit except for the rat. Oxen represent industriousness, tigers represent power, rabbits represent smartness, dragons represent dignity, horses represent vigor, goats represent gentleness, monkeys represent cleverness, roosters represent faithfulness, dogs represent loyalty, snakes represent flexibility, and pigs represent fortune.

But rats, from which the cycle of 12 animal signs start, do not imply anything positive. Actually, many idioms and phrases that include the character of rats have negative meanings, and there is even an old saying in China that if a rat passes by a street, every one would like to beat it. In some circumstances, rats even embody disasters or misfortune. Maybe, the low status of rats is related with their unpleasant appearance and their dirty habits.

So why do rats lead the other animals in the year-naming system? It is said that rats have made three great contributions to humanity. The first contribution is that rats have created the universe. In Chinese folk tales, the sky and the earth were originally not separated. One day, a little rat ran out, saw the confusion, and gave a big bite to the entanglement of the sky and the earth, which separated the sky and the earth finally. So, people consider the little rat the hero that has created a new era.

The second contribution is that rats bring about light to humanity. It is said that after the rat separated the sky and the earth, a big black cloud blocked out the sun. Neither people nor animals could see in such darkness. So, the little rat and its friends set out to steal the sunlight and light up the earth.

The third contribution is that rats stole seeds of grains to feed humanity. From that time people on the earth began to farm and feed themselves.

In the mythologies of some minorities in China, rats are considered as their ancestors and seen as part of the family.

The rat is also considered a creature that is very smart and rewards the good deeds of others, and in the past rats represented blessings, as the year of rat is called zi shu (zi is the first branch of the 12 Earth Branches, and shu is the pronunciation of rats in Chinese). Zi is also a character in Chinese language that means children. So, in folklore, people would usually hang a painting of rats in their houses to pray for the long continuance of their bloodline.

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