This year the Chinese New Year falls on 25 January, somewhat earlier than usual. This time it’s the year of the rat, which is the first of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac.

Legend has it that the Jade Emperor got the animals to race to see in what order they would get to his party. The race included a river. The rat asked the ox, who could swim, for permission to sit on his back. The ox agreed. However, the rat did not repay this generosity with thanks. On reaching the dry, the rat leapt ahead and won the race.

Maybe this shows that rats are a bit mean. Certainly, for the Chinese, people born in the year of the rat are careful with their money, and often successful in business. It is said that the rat likes to steal food, so the year of the rat is associated with superfluity and good harvests. Not such a bad thing and a nice interpretation of the results of stealing! Rats are also associated with fertility, because they breed very fast.

The Chinese word for rat is laoshu老鼠 so the “year of the rat” is shunian 鼠年. What about translating it “year of the mouse”, which would be just as accurate? In Anglophone countries, mice are generally less unpopular than rats. But from what I’ve seen, most of the time “year of the rat” it is, not “year of the mouse”.

In the West, we often associate the rat with the Black Death of the mid-14th century, the plague epidemic that killed a sizable proportion of Europe’s population, some estimates going as high as half. Rats have generally copped the blame for the epidemic, among the worst, possibly the worst in history. Didn’t they transmit the disease to humans? But perhaps rats were not to blame. Perhaps they were among the victims of a dreadful flea or louse, not the culprit. And latest research suggests that another rodent, not the rat, was the main transmitter. Still, the image of the omnivorous dirty rat swimming in the sewers and spreading filth and disease is hard to erase. Call somebody a “rat” and I don’t think they’ll like it too much.

Actually, China has had its share of epidemics, including of the plague, and rats aren’t greatly admired. But they don’t seem to be plagued with the disgust there that the Western image inflicts on them (pun intentional). In China they are given credit for wit, flexibility, and vitality. They think quickly, are clever and hard-working. They are alert and spirited. In other words, they are not without some important strengths. Areas where they often excel include art, writing, business, teaching and leadership.

Let’s apply that to history. Here are five famous people born in a year of the rat, listed in chronological order: the Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), George Washington (1732-1799), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (b. 1984). The fit isn’t bad. Along with his contemporary Li Bai, Du Fu is the greatest, certainly most famous, poet in Chinese history, and I don’t need to say more about William Shakespeare. He and Du Fu certainly excelled in writing. And Washington still has a very good reputation as a leader, while Mozart is sometimes considered the greatest musical genius of all time. Not sure about Prince Harry yet, but perhaps he’ll show some of the necessary rat features by the time we can judge.

So let’s combine with the five elements, as they are in traditional Chinese culture, metal, water, wood, fire and earth. 2020 is the year of the metal-rat. People from that kind of year are said to be sensitive, self-assertive and persuasive. Maybe that makes them good leaders!?

So the year of the rat marks a new beginning, because the rat won the race to the Jade Emperor’s party. I hope 2020 also marks a new and better beginning compared with 2019. I also hope all readers can take advantage of the new beginning in contribution, thrift, wealth, brilliance and persuasiveness.


Colin Mackerras AO FAHA is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation and the Griffith Asia Institute.