It’s the Year of the Rat, and in honor of the occasion, the Shanghai Museum organized an entire exhibit dedicated to historical relics with rat motifs. The star of the show is undoubtedly an 18th century statue of a serene-looking yellow Jambhala wealth god cradling a small rodent in his left hand. Although rats have a long history within Buddhism, perhaps due to syncretism with millennia-old Central Asian beliefs, in mainstream Chinese culture, such positive, even adorable depictions of these critters were something of a rarity.
Nowadays, on the other hand, rats are omnipresent, and they’re cuter than ever. On a recent trip to the store to buy Lunar New Year’s gifts for my family, the shelves were stocked with mountains of smiling rodent dolls in traditional Chinese outfits and hats. But the real winner of this year’s festivities, at least in Shanghai, is Mickey Mouse. In addition to the usual souvenirs and gift shop tchotchkes — Disney has reportedly slapped his face on thousands of “Year of the Mouse”-themed products — the famous mascot was also prominently featured in Shanghai’s lantern show at Yuyuan Gardens and the celebrations at the city’s 3-year-old Disney Resort.
Compared with other zodiac animals — like the dog, pig, or rabbit — the rat seemingly poses a challenge to companies looking to cash in on the New Year’s festivities. That they’ve succeeded underscores some of the ways the past 40 years of rapid economic development have radically altered Chinese society and traditions.
The rat — or mouse, since the Chinese term, laoshu, could refer to either — enjoys pride of place in the Chinese zodiac. In addition to the popular legend of a race to decide the zodiac’s order, rodents play an important role in the Chinese creation myth. Some stories tell of an earth and heavens in disarray until a rat emerged and bit a hole in the chaos and restored order. A number of China’s ethnic minorities also tell tales of a rat that bit through a gourd or golden drum, symbolizing the universe. Others say rats stole grain from the heavens to help humans.
But this cultural and mythical prestige rarely trickled down to real rats, whose tendency to breed quickly, chew up furniture, spread diseases, and steal food did not endear them to humans in agrarian societies. A famous poem from the “Book of Songs,” the oldest extant collection of Chinese poetry, included this plea: “Rat, rat, stop eating my millet. I have labored and served you for many years, yet you show me no mercy.”
On the surface, the poem is about a wicked rat that heartlessly steals food from people, but it also serves as an analogy for greedy rulers who exploit their subjects. Indeed, like in other languages, “rat” is commonly used in Chinese idioms to describe shady, short-sighted, or hated individuals.
A paper-cut produced in 2013 tells the story behind “The Rat Daughter’s Marriage” festival. Tuchong
Historically, even when Chinese did honor rats, the rituals still fit into a pattern of alternating conflict and accommodation. According to one classic custom, “The Rat Daughter’s Marriage” — which takes place leading up to or just after Lunar New Year, depending on the region — people will extinguish their lights and go to bed early in order to allow their household rats to send their daughters off to be married. The festival was especially popular in East China: In Shanghai, some families made sesame candies as a wedding gifts, while in other areas, residents would burn incense, hang up paper-cuttings, and place rice balls, pastries, and other snacks in various nooks around the house for the rat wedding guests to enjoy.
On the surface, this might seem like a cute way of indulging the animals, but folklorists believe that residents were simply masking their true intention: eradicating as many of the pests as possible. Rats along the Yangtze River tend to give birth to their litters around the Lunar New Year, so locals picked a night to keep their house unlit and laid out food to coax them out of their holes and kill them.
Even the children’s tales about the holiday can have a bloody twist. In the first picture book I had while growing up in the eastern city of Shaoxing in the 1980s, the story began with the rat daughter’s parents hoping to marry her to a capable husband. They searched for the most powerful being they could find. First, they found that the sun was afraid of the cloud, then that the cloud was afraid of the wind, and the wind afraid of the wall. The wall was afraid of rats, and the rats of course were afraid of cats. So they carried their daughter off to marry a cat, who promptly ate her whole on their wedding night.
Mickey Mouse themed paper-cuts. From HOLA
As a kid, the tale of the rat girl’s demise struck me as fascinating. But when today’s young urban Chinese think of rats, they’re probably picturing cute, animated characters like Mickey Mouse or Jerry from the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons.
Strictly speaking, Mickey Mouse was first introduced to China in the 1930s through cartoon films and translated comics. Soon, weak intellectual property protections and wartime exigencies led local businesses and artists to appropriate him for their own purposes. The predecessor of the country’s wildly popular White Rabbit candy brand, for example, was Mickey Mouse Sweets — though the packaging was changed in the mid-1950s, when rising anti-American sentiment and a national decision to name rats one of the “four pests” and call for their eradication made a rebrand advisable.
To contemporary intellectuals, Mickey had a different kind of potential — as a vehicle for sketches of urban life or criticisms of social mores. Fan Lang’s 1939 comic “Mickey Mouse Comes to Shanghai” shows the mouse as a cosmopolitan dandy who parties, dates, and goes to the movies while Japanese troops surround the city.
Disney’s mouse would disappear from Chinese popular culture until the “reform and opening-up” period, but ’80s audiences thirsty for less ideologically heavy-handed content lapped up Mickey and Jerry’s antics. Unlike in the United States, where the notion of a mischievous mouse hero had long since been normalized, the classic ’80s Chinese cartoon “Black Cat Detective” pitted the eponymous cat against the devious mouse One Ear. Mickey and Jerry represented another possibility: They weren’t greedy “pests” or malevolent troublemakers, but friendly and clever scamps more concerned with having fun than with imparting moral lessons.
Mickey and Jerry’s arrival also coincided with the abrupt commercialization of Chinese society. Local businesses eventually picked up on the popularity of these cartoon mice, and started to adapt their own products to match. Today, even artists working in traditional mediums like paper-cutting and brush painting often portray rats as cuddly and cute in the interest of making their goods more marketable.
To an extent, the rat’s metamorphosis, which saw it go from being a pest and metaphor for villainy that happened to be atop the zodiac calendar to a fun consumerist icon, is a symbol of economic progress. As our standards of living have improved, and rats and mice lost some of their ability to devastate our societies, our traditional taboos and customs have faded. Now the marriage of rats and commerce can proceed in peace.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A rat figurine made in honor of the Year of the Rat on display in Tianjin, Jan. 22, 2020. Song Rui/Xinhua)