Rat’s Story

Many know the Rat marks the start to the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle, but there is more than one story of how the Rat took the number one title. Find out the lesser known story and what it means to be a Rat.

2020 is not just the beginning of another decade but also marks the first of a 12-year cycle of animals: the Chinese Zodiac. The Year of the Rat is the 4717th year based on the Yellow Emperor Chronology.

Rats are not exactly charming creatures in Eastern and Western cultures. In Chinese idioms they are always associated with dishonesty, lack of vision and as freeloaders. There are many stories and legends explaining why such an obnoxious creature can be listed on top of the twelve zodiacs.

A different rat story

The most popular and well-accepted one is the famous race. The Rat and Cat decided to enter the competition together. However, knowing the diligent Ox would set out the earliest, the Rat hides in the Ox’s horn and leaves home without waking up his friend, the Cat. When the Ox was close to the finish line, the Rat quickly jumped ahead of the Ox coming in first.

There are many versions of the race and how the Rat won in nothing less than a disloyal fashion. One that is not as common has to do with the Rat inadvertently saving the Yellow Emperor’s life.

For those who are not familiar with the Yellow Emperor, he is considered the founder of ancient China by uniting different tribes and conquering the barbarians in the South. Another great achievement of his was the invention of a calendar system (the Lunar Calendar) using the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches. In order to promote this method, the Yellow Emperor decided to choose 12 animals to represent the years so the peasants, the old and the young, could understand easily.

Twelve eager animals rushed to the outside of his palace before sunrise on Chinese New Year Day. The Ox arrived earliest, followed by the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Ram, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, the Pig and the Cat. The Rat woke up late because he got drunk the night before, when he went out stealing.

“Who cares? I am late anyway,” thought the Rat, so he took a detour to the altar where all the offerings were. He starts eating and grinds teeth on a huge set of red candles before finally dozing off. The servants came to light the candles before the ceremony and announce the 12 zodiacs, and found the candles were filled with explosives. It turned out that Chiyou, chief of a barbaric tribe, intended to kill the Yellow Emperor as revenge for his defeat. Saved by the Rat, the Yellow Emperor rewards him and places him as the first in the Chinese zodiacs. Since the Cat was last, he was eliminated. From then on, the Rat and Cat became enemies.

Obviously, the Rat and the Cat fell out no matter which story you follow. To make amends, the Rat marries his most beautiful daughter to the Cat on the New Year’s Eve. It is not difficult to imagine that the happy occasion ends up a “red wedding.” The bride was swallowed by the groom. On the 25th day of Chinese New Year, people will not turn on their lights, so they do not disturb the Rat’s wedding. People sit quietly on the bedside and eat a traditional pastry, called lao shu Guagua, meaning “What a fool the Rat is!”

Rat superstitions

According to the Yinyang theory, the characteristics of each animal matches the order of the zodiac. Rats are active at night, especially from 11 pm to 1 am, known as zi shi in Chinese timing system, which means “the beginning of yang.”

At the very beginning of the heaven and earth, everything was in a dark mist of chaos. It was a Rat who bravely bit through the sky so that the sun could shine upon the earth. Some ancient tribes in China worshiped the Rat as their totem, symbolizing hope and pursuit of light. Even today, the auspicious Rat figure can be found in many Spring Festival paper cuttings and pictures.


The Rat and the calabash represent a long life, happiness and wealth, while the Rat and the pomegranate signify a flourishing family.

People born in the Year of the Rat will be attracted to people who were born in the Year of the Ox, who are believed to be strong, reliable and trustworthy. They can forge close allies with people who were born in the Year of the Dragon and Snake. They are also attracted to people born in the Year of the Monkey, who are considered intelligent and agile. People born in the Year of the Tiger, Dog and Pig also get along well with Rats. American actress Scarlett Johansson, born in 1984 (Year of the Rat), got engaged with SNL comedian Colin Jost, who was born in the Year of the Dog. May her third marriage last to the end. However, they will not get along with people born in the Year of the Horse, Ram or Rooster.

Based on calculation of the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), two and three are the lucky numbers, but five and nine accompany misfortune. Blue, gold and green are lucky colors while yellow and brown are not.

Rats throughout history

When you see a Rat on a street corner, no sooner does it disappear swiftly than you can react to it. Benefit-tending and harm-avoiding are written in their instincts. Once they sense any risk or danger, they will promptly figure out an exit plan.

The people born in the Year of the Rat are credited with being vigilant, adaptable and smart. Empress Wu Zetian, born in 624 and the only empress in Chinese history, was notorious for killing one daughter and two sons of her own, stumbled upon poems written by the 13-year-old Shangguan Wan’er, born in 664 (Year of the Rat) and daughter of a government officer, in the crown prince’s study. She summoned Wan’er and asked her to compose an essay based on a given theme on the spot. Wan’er performed marvelously, and the Empress was so impressed that she appointed Wan’er her personal secretary.

People born in the year of the Rat can always overcome impediments and achieve great success because they are calm, courageous and resolute. With a good memory and insight, people born in the Year of the Rat are also skeptical, well-informed and talented writers.

You might recognize a few famous and notable Rats from the past. Knowing the common characteristics of people born in the Year of the Rat, it only makes sense these people went down in the pages of history. These celebrities show Rats are known for their way with words.

Du Fu , 712 to 770. A prominent Chinese poet, he left roughly 1,500 poems which had great impact in Chinese and Japanese literature.

William Shakespeare, 1564 to 1616. A British playwright who received a large amount of praise—beyond the English language—and is still studied, performed and interpreted around the world.

Leo Tolstoy , 1828 to 1910. He was nominated for Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906, and for Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902 and 1910.

Winston Churchill, 1874 to 1965, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, considered an important leader during wartime and credited with defending Europe’s democracy. However, he was not without flaws, and was known for being self-absorbed and outspoken.