Starting on the evening of Feb. 6, China will go into its annual hibernation as families eat marathon meals and visit old friends with gifts and gossip. According to government pronouncements, the holiday officially ends on Feb. 12 but on the traditional calendar the holiday extends a full fifteen days.
Please join me, ladies and gentlemen, in welcoming…The Year of the Rat.
I admit that the rat is hardly the most charming beast in the zodiac. The Year of the Rat is, however, extremely important in Chinese tradition. Rat Year starts off the entire zodiac cycle.
Last year’s golden pig year marked the end of a twelve-year cycle, and so now we start all over again. Why does the rat get that honored position? In the Chinese formulation, Rats are natural leaders, armed with keen senses and a cunning courage.
Legend has it that the Rat earned his place at the front of the calendar by hitching a ride on the bull through a zodiac race, and hopping off at the last minute to scurry across the finish line first. The rat has the acuity to sense a better way, and the courage to take it.
In light of the Rat Year’s coveted front position, you would think China would be awash in cute rat imagery. Last year’s golden pig was a porcine extravaganza, as shop windows around the nation boasted fat pigs of gold and porkish cartoons of plenty.
Charming piggie TV ads had even cynical teenage audiences cooing. But this year the streets feel different– last year’s piggie windows are now festooned with generic red banners and familiar golden greetings.
The fact is, from a marketing perspective, not all zodiac animals are created equal. The rat just doesn’t have the glamour of, say, the tiger. Whereas children born this year are known to be charismatic and highly intelligent, it’s hard to beat the excitement of the Year of the Dragon.
And so the Rat is relegated to the background. Commercials this year are focusing on general symbols like chubby babies and the weird boat-shaped ingot that is the traditional Chinese measure of gold. Rat motifs are hidden away in swirling calligraphy, or used so abstractly that even cats couldn’t find them.
There are of course exceptions. Electronic markets are selling cute computer mouse covers, a high-tech and high-fun gift. The folk at Disney are certainly milking their most famous icon for all he’s worth this year--should we call it the year of the (Mickey) rat?
There is a sort of surreal ridiculousness to ascribing a personality to an entire year based on ancient legends. Yet it is a useful metaphor. The rat’s perceptiveness and forward-thinking nature are sure to come in handy this year.
Recent events have put people on edge--currency revaluation and recent stock market fluctuations in particular have rattled the confidence of people who have seen nothing but solid financial growth for years. The symbolism is almost foolishly obvious: this year is defined by the clever animal who rode a surging bull almost to the end of the race--and knew when to jump off and dart ahead.
No matter how much marketers underplay it, China still has Rats on its minds this year. People here are expecting some chaos, in its good and bad forms, and are looking to enhanced perception, courage, and cleverness as the way out. The newly unreliable stock market is just the beginning of a year that promises to be a bit more complicated than the simple delights of the pig.
In spite of all this Ratty trepidation, it is important not to get carried away. After all, many of the text messages and greetings that have been flying around don’t even mention the Year of the Rat.
Instead they simply say, “Happy Olympics Year”. I second that sentiment--have a great Olympics, be careful of chaos and have a great Year of the Rat!
P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency based in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.