Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the Chinese zodiac in which each lunar year, along with anyone born in that year, is dominated by the characteristics associated with one of twelve animals: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the boar. The system was popularized by the Chinese centuries ago and still has major impact on millions around the globe. In this ancient practice, each animal is part of a twelve year rotating cycle; so a person born in July of 1970 and a person born in October of 1982 are both born in The Year of the Dog. Likewise, a father born in August of 1953 would share the sign of the snake with his son who is born in April of 1977.
The twelve year rotation is then wrapped up in a larger sixty year cycle, and so on. On the surface, it seems very simple – one animal, one year for twelve and sixty years – but in truth, the system is as complicated as our own understanding of ourselves and our connection to the rest of creation. The elements, the yin and yang, and all other forces in the universe play roles in this elaborate scheme.
I became personally interested in the topic when I learned that my mother, my father and I were all born in the Year of the Rat; my parents both being born in 1936 and I in 1960. I decided to research the topic to see if the rat of the Chinese zodiac was in any way similar to the plague-carrying scourge of the Western world. I was happy to see that there are some key differences. Rats have long been admired in the East for their intelligence and their ability to survive, and even prosper, in the worst of times.
Rather than being despised as disease-ridden vermin, they are respected as cunning and tenacious creatures. The mythology surrounding the Chinese zodiac illustrates this perspective nicely. In one tale, Lord Buddha calls all of the animals in the forest to his death-bed so that he might say goodbye to each of them. The rat is the first to arrive – albeit through some trickery – and is given the honor by Buddha of being the first in the twelve year cycle. It’s position as number one bestows upon the rat a certain rat-nobility mostly unheard of in Western civilization. I decided to take a look at which qualities would so endear the rat to the people of the East.
The Prosperous Rat
Wherever there are people offering food and shelter, there will be rats taking advantage of it. Rats are opportunists, and moving into a warm house or barn near a food supply just makes good sense. If there is no food, there is no rat. For this reason, the rat has long been associated with abundance and prosperity.
The Creative Rat
This clever rodent is inventive enough to discover alternate means of survival. As the prosperous rat will attest: when nature doesn’t provide, man usually does.
The Industrious Rat
Always on the lookout for the next meal, rats are rarely still. With patience, persistence and hard work (as well as the ability to reproduce at an astonishing rate), they ensure their own survival.
The Fortuitous Rat
We all know that rats don’t stick around to see the a bad situation to its end. Rats really do “desert a sinking ship”. If you have rats around your home, chances are that no great disaster is imminent. For this reason, rats have come to symbolize good fortune.
In the world of the Asian Zodiac, The Year of the Rat is said to bring with it much activity and a slow and steady flow of the necessities of life. It doesn’t promise any glory, just the comfort and stability that hard work often brings. As for those of born in one of those years, the same characteristics apply. “Rat people” are thought to be diligent workers. They are generally humble, intelligent and creative. While they are often wealthy, it is usually as a result of modest accumulation rather than any windfall. They can be greedy, but they are also known to be exceedingly generous with friends and family. They can be remarkably charming too.
Whether or not you believe in such things, you must agree that the Chinese zodiac offers an interesting look at the patterns and cycles that exist in nature. Its concepts may be somewhat esoteric, but it has a very real way of connecting us with the world around us. Although it revolves around the attributes of animals, it offers a uniquely humanistic view of the order of things.
As for me, I’m proud to be associated with this formidable little rodent. Love them or hate them, it’s hard to deny that rats have played a very powerful role in the history of man. They’ve certainly managed to outlast scores of others in the animal kingdom. Maybe it’s for that reason alone that rats deserve their place as number one in the Chinese animal zodiac.