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TO most people in the western world, rats have a bad reputation.

They’re scrappy, dirty vermin who have been recognized as little furry vessels of disease; it was known that rats were responsible for the spread of bubonic plague in the 14th century that killed nearly half of Europe’s population. English-speaking cultures have even commandeered the word “rat” to refer to unscrupulous, disloyal people.

But in Chinese culture, especially in the context of the zodiac, the rat is a highly regarded creature that symbolizes wealth and opportunity. Rats are seen as resourceful, clever creatures who know what they want and do whatever it takes to get it.

Year of the Metal Rat | AJPress illustration by Godwin Gasaco

This coming Lunar New Year will welcome the year of the metal Rat, the first of the 12 zodiac animals. Those born in the years of the Rat — e.g. 1912, 1924, 1236, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008 and 2020 — are said to be gregarious opportunists who thrive in leadership positions.

The Chinese zodiac animals exist within five Heavenly branches which represent the five elements of nature: metal, water, wood, fire and earth.  2020 is the year of the metal Rat, and folks born during this year are said to reliable members of the community who can not only endure moments of misfortune, but spin them in their favor.

The specification of metal also signals that this will be a good year in the production of many industries like automobiles, information technology, cosmetics and health.

Legend has it that the order of the zodiac animals was determined through a competition hosted by the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven, Earth and Hell.

According to the myth, the emperor chose 12 animals and had them participate in a great race to the emperor’s palace, and whoever got their first would be the first categorized in the zodiac.

One version of the story purports the Rat and Cat being best friends before the race. Together they schemed to race alongside each other and ride atop the Ox who would’ve been too oblivious to notice the two creatures using him as a vehicle.

But during the race, the rat, ever the opportunist, sprinted forward, sending the Cat flying off the Ox and into a nearby river; this has been said to explain the animosity felines have towards rats, mice and other small rodents. As the Ox neared the finish line, the Rat lunged ahead and crossed the finish line first.

Much like western astrology, there are compatibility pairings within the Chinese zodiac system. Those born in the Rat are best matched with those born in the years of the Snake, Rooster, Ox, Pig, Rabbit, Goat, Dog and Tiger.

Alternatively, the myth suggests avoiding those born in the year of the Horse as they are said to be the opposite sign of the Rat.

Once the Lunar New Year arrives on January 25, experts in the Chinese zodiac recommend consuming nuts, cheeses and other foods rats enjoy. They also recommend dressing in the finest clothing and jewelry to mirror the Rat’s love for decadence.

Most importantly, the Year of the Rat signals a brand new start to the zodiac, and it promises great productivity and creative energy for all.

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