If your new year hasn’t gone the way you wanted, or if you are already slacking on your resolutions, don’t worry—you just got a second chance this weekend. January 25 was the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, the Year of the Rat.
You may feel uneasy about the Year of the Rat. After all, many people associate rats with filth or even fear (I am a screamer upon encountering a rat), and definitely not something to be celebrated. However, in traditional Chinese culture, rats are seen as clever and hardworking animals. The Chinese zodiac sign of the rat represents wealth and abundance, primarily due to rats’ amazing ability to multiply their offspring.
The Year of the Rat is not an ordinary year. Before I explain why, here’s a quick primer on the Chinese zodiac.
The number 12 is a sacred number in Chinese culture: a day is divided into 12 hours, a year is made up of 12 months, a zodiac cycle has 12 years, with each year assigned to a different animal, creating a total of 12 animal “representatives”. Each zodiac cycle begins with the Year of the Rat and ends with the Year of the Pig, and repeats. So on January 25, we welcomed not only a new year, but also an entirely new zodiac cycle.
How did something as seemingly insignificant as a rat come to represent the beginning of a cycle? The legend, according to my mom, goes like this. A long time ago, the Jade Emperor (the emperor of Heaven) announced he would host a race among all the animals. The first 12 who won would be honored to represent the 12-year zodiac cycle.
The rat, as hardworking as always, set out early when everyone else, including the mighty dragon and the powerful tiger, were still sound asleep. Then the rat encountered a river so wide and deep that he couldn’t possibly cross on his own. Fortunately, an ox, another early riser and industrious animal, came right behind him.
The rat persuaded the ox to let him sit on the ox’s head as a guide when the ox was trying to cross this treacherous water. The ox agreed. Once they made it over, rather than saying “Thank you,” the rat rushed through the finish line and claimed first place in the race. That’s how the rat became the animal to represent the beginning of a 12-year cycle. The good-natured and kind-hearted ox became the second.
It’s fair to say that the rat didn’t win the race in an honorable way, but through subterfuge. My mom must have realized this, too—right after she told me this folklore, she emphasized that it is always important to take the time to thank other people.
“But the rat won the race! He was the number one!” The young me argued. I still remember my mom’s reply, “Yes, he won the race, but has to live with a tainted reputation forever.” She is right, as always. Still, ever since then, I have been questioning why our ancestors would choose to bestow the honor of being first of the zodiac cycle to a creature whose flaw is as obvious as its strength.
The story of the rat is one of those examples that demonstrate the ambiguity of Chinese culture. In Western culture, almost everything is clearly demonstrated as either good or bad, and there is little gray area in between. However, in Chinese culture, everything is always in a transitional mode, flowing in a circular motion: something good will inevitably lead to something bad, and vice versa.
The gray area is wide and deep, like the river the rat had to cross in the legend. Nothing is permanent and everything is always evolving, like the Yin and Yang circle. Traditional Chinese culture is also full of contradictions: death is the beginning of something new; doing nothing is a form of doing something; a crisis is also an opportunity; the word “length” is made up of two words: long and short; nodding doesn’t always mean “yes,” and smiling doesn’t always represent an agreement; and sometimes, the most important message is not what was said, but what was left unsaid.
Probably because of these ambiguity and contradictions, non-Chinese sometimes find Chinese culture difficult to understand or feel that Chinese people are difficult to work with. My advice is that when you meet someone who is an ethnic Chinese for the first time, don’t try to fit him or her into some kind of stereotyped, identity-constraining box. Ask questions and be very observant.
No two Chinese people are alike. We are all unique individuals. I, for example, am a very direct person. My husband always says that subtlety is not my strength. When dealing with me, you know exactly where I stand and what I believe. There is no ambiguity.
I may not act like a stereotypical Chinese (whatever that means), but I do believe in the circle of life, and I feel especially sentimental on this upcoming Chinese New Year. On the one hand, it is the beginning of a new cycle of time. On the other hand, it’s another repeat of a cycle that has been repeated thousands of times for more than 3,000 years. There is something new yet eternal about it.
During the last 12-year cycle, I accomplished some amazing things, but also suffered unspeakable pain and loss. I endured betrayals, but also strengthened important existing relationships, while being welcomed and embraced into new ones. I drifted away from God for a period of time, then rediscovered his steadfast love and mercy.
I don’t have the luxury of starting this new year and a new cycle of time with a fresh slate. What happened in the past doesn’t magically go away just because of a calendar change. However, I do plan on making some changes, as sort of my own Chinese New Year resolution: become a better servant of God; be more loving and supportive to my family and friends; be more courageous and apply whatever talents, strength, and willpower God has endowed on me to advocate for ideas that matter.
I wish all of you a Happy Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat!