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What to expect in the Year of the Rat

Why does the Rat come first in the Chinese zodiac, a cycle of 12 years, each represented by a different animal? Indeed, why is it part of the zodiac at all, forcing more illustrious animals onto the sidelines?

One more practical explanation for their primary position is that Rats come out around midnight, giving them an early start to the day. However, a grander myth has it that the Jade Emperor, the ruler of all the Chinese gods, dictated that the order of the zodiac cycle would be decided in a race requiring the animals to cross a river. The Cat and the Rat were best of friends, so the two hatched a plan to ride the Ox across the river. But as the Ox started crossing the Rat jolted forward, throwing the Cat into the water. The Rat didn’t bother to check on his friend, instead jumping down ahead of the Ox at the finishing line and taking first place in the pecking order.

The story is said to explain the poor relations between the two animals ever since, as well as why the Cat never became one of the 12 zodiac animals. Perhaps it points to some of the negatives associated with Rats as well, especially a tendency for cunning or greedy behaviour (Pope Francis, George Washington, Wolfgang Mozart and William Shakespeare – all Rats – might disagree).

Despite Western stereotypes, rodents in Chinese culture are often seen as clever, inquisitive and resourceful. They are also said to be able reach their goals, despite everything that might stand in their way, thanks in part to their helpful charm and energy. And as the first in the cycle of the zodiac signs, the Year of the Rat is also seen as a time when life starts afresh and is thus a symbol of new beginnings.

US-based literary translator Berlin Fang pointed out this week in the China Daily that the rat is also the most versatile of the zodiac animals – as it can swim, run and climb. Another attraction is that “rats can feed themselves even during a famine due to their agility and the mobility afforded by their versatility”. That, he says, has an appeal to Chinese – a people with a history of subsisting on very little, meaning “many have accorded their top priority to food”.

Another factor complicating the stereotypes, Fang believes, is that the character for the zodiac animal is 鼠(shu), which is not exclusively associated with the rat. It actually means ‘rodent’ and in the Chinese context shu can also refer to mice (where the connotations are not quite so bleak; think Mickey).

The last Year of the Rat was 2008 and few will remember it particularly fondly, given that it coincided with the global financial crisis. But for relations between China and the United States, Rat Years can be momentous as well: consider that in 1972, also a Rat year, Richard Nixon (born in a Rat year himself) ‘opened’ China with his famous presidential visit.

Perhaps that bodes well for the second phase of trade negotiations between Beijing and Washington, after an initial deal was reached last week.

Nevertheless, this year is also the ganzhi, which is the beginning of a new 60-year cycle, according to Chinese legend. The last ganzhi was 1960, the height of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), which resulted in a famine that killed an estimated 45 million people. The one before that saw a terrible rebellion in 1900, when rebels described in the Western media as Boxers (because they believed that physical exercise would help them withstand bullets), murdered foreigners and Chinese Christians, as well as bashing up their property, in an effort to expel the ‘overseas barbarians’. That’s a precedent that may not bode quite as well for ‘phase two’ of Donald Trump’s proposed trade deal.

So what else might this Rat Year, which kicks off on January 25, entail? Factoring in the five elements of nature – Wood, Earth, Water, Fire and Metal – this is the year of the Metal Rat, which is supposed to make the rodent’s nature more determined and more resolute. Perhaps that’s just as well: Michael Chiang, a master of shu shu, or a mix of fortune telling and astrology, told the Hong Kong Economic Times that he believes that the year is going to be a rollercoaster ride, marked by a series of natural and man-made disasters. Joey Yap, another feng shui consultant, adds that the next twelve months may not be the best time to take many risks. “The year of the Metal Rat will not be conducive to speculative endeavours. The global economic outlook isn’t exactly vibrant despite the best efforts of various governments. Instead, the year is best spent focusing on fundamentals, stocking up on financial immunity and awaiting opportunities while waylaying disruption,” he recommends.

As Metal as an element creates Water, industries that are related to the Water element –including tourism, logistics and transportation – could come into focus in the new year, Michael Chiang, a Hong Kong feng shui expert, told the same newspaper. Another of his tips: Earth companies, like property and resources firms, will outperform.

Of course, some zodiac signs will enjoy better fortunes in the Year of the Rat than others. Read on for more on your own outlook…


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