Explainer: Everything You Need to Know About the Year of the Rat

By That's, January 22, 2020

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The Explainer is where we explain an aspect of Chinese life. Simple. So now you know.

There are many legends as to how the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac came to be chosen. Most go something like this.

The ancient Jade Emperor called a meeting of all the animals to decide who would be honored with the assignment of a zodiac year. He waited on the banks of a river and decided that he would award the years to the animals in the order they managed to make it across.

While some relied on their natural abilities (like the Rabbit, who hopped from stone to stone, or the Dragon, who simply flew), others used cunning and trickery to secure passage, like the Rat.

As the great race loomed on the horizon, the Rat hatched a plan with the Cat to ride the Ox across the river together. They knew the large and hardy Ox was accustomed to crossing rivers and would likely finish first. 

At the start of the race, the two animals slipped atop the oblivious Ox, but the Rat jolted abruptly forward, sending the Cat flying off the Ox and into the river. This is why, even to this day, the Cat hates water and hunts the Rat every time he sees him! 

As the Ox lumbered towards the finish line, the clever Rat leapt from the Ox’s back, crossing the finish line first. What a sneaky victory! 


Rat Birth Years

1888, 1900, 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008 and 2020

What are they like?

Quick-witted, alert, hardworking, resourceful, adaptable, thrifty, creative, optimistic, energetic, meticulous, sensitive, narrow-minded, lack courage and stubborn

Rats make excellent...

Accountants, critics, directors, editors, artists, entrepreneurs, broadcasters, writers, musicians, actors and researchers

Most compatible with...

Oxes and Dragons

Mortal enemies with...


Rat idioms

A number of common Chinese idioms featuring the Rat usually have derogatory connotations. You can find some examples here:

胆小如鼠, dǎn xiǎo rú shǔ“Courage as small as a mouse.” Meaning: Chicken-hearted. 

鼠目寸光, shǔ mù cùn guāng“A rat can only see one cun (about 3.33 centimeters).” Meaning: Short-sighted.

猫鼠同眠, māo shǔ tóng mián: “The cat and the rat sleep together.” Meaning: Corrupt officials allow their subordinates to get away with crimes.

进退首鼠, jìn tuì shǒu shǔ: “Hesitant to advance or retreat.” Meaning: Indecisive.

抱头鼠窜, bào tóu shǔ cuàn“Cover the head and sneak away like a rat.” Meaning: To flee in shame.

Fellow Rats

Alan Turing, Antonio Banderas, Bono, Cameron Diaz, Claude Monet, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dwayne Johnson, Eminem, Gwyneth Paltrow, Idris Elba, Jude Law, Julianne Moore, Katy Perry, Laverne Cox, LeBron James, Lorde, Louis Armstrong, Mark Zuckerberg, Prince Harry, Richard Nixon, Rosa Parks, RuPaul, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Tim Cook, Tom Holland, Trevor Noah, William Shakespeare and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Click here for more The Explainer.

[Cover image via Pixabay]

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