It was an inauspicious start to the Year of the White Rat: The “Wuhan Virus” exploded onto the region’s consciousness and bamboo rats were fingered as the culprits.
Now – thankfully for the reputation of the humble rodent – the evidence has shifted, suggesting bats are the real vectors of the disease.
Even so, there is little question that the rat gets a bad rap. This is something that should come under scrutiny as China, overseas Chinese, and Sinic-influenced cultures worldwide, including Japan, Korea and Vietnam, celebrate the Year of the White Rat in the coming days.
Is the rat’s reputation fair?
A special exhibition running at Seoul’s National Folk Museum of Korea ahead of and during the Lunar New Year holiday, “Even a Rat Has His Day,” aims to level the playing field. In it, one may be surprised to learn that the rat (which is not, generally, differentiated from the mouse in ancient Asian thought) is the leading sign in the Chinese Zodiac – ahead of such majestic beasts as the tiger and such mythical monsters as the dragon.
Observationally, the rat was noted for fertility, prosperity and cleverness. Relatedly, rat years are seen – mythologically – as good years both for, respectively, giving birth and for making money. But beware! Rat years can also see calamitous events strike.
And let us not overlook reality: Mankind has good reason to hate and fear the rat. Traditional Koreans, especially, had good reasons to do so – and to love their customary predator, snakes.
Numero Uno in Chinese Zodiac
According to one story, the rat craftily won a race set by the mythical Jade Emperor by perching on the back of an ox, so becoming the first sign among the 12 animals which make up the Chinese zodiac. The rat’s direction is north, and its time represents the midnight hours of 11 pm to 1 am – good times for hard workers, creatives and creative hard workers.
Rats are prolific and are both crafty and diligent in their constant search of food, the Folk Museum’s exhibits make clear. Korean proverbs related to rats include “Without rats, the ship will sink” (suggesting their capacity for forethought) and “Even a rat can fart after 12 years” (suggesting that good outcomes arise from consistent effort).
Famed persons born in rat years include Shakespeare, Washington and US politician Al Gore.
Exhibits at the museum include pre-modern drawings, paintings, screens and even sculptures of rats. Some rats are badass-looking guardian beasts; others are pests, chewing on crops. A royal book from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) is displayed, complete with a missing chunk – even the king’s treatises, it seems, could be the victims of nibbling rats.
But while rats may have had positive qualities assigned to them mythologically, in the real world, rodents have been among mankind’s most murderous enemies. Like mosquitoes, rats have proven far deadlier than such high-profile predators as sharks and pythons.
Rats in the roof
The “Black Death” (bubonic plague) came to medieval Europe from China via rats secreted aboard shipping. In one of the worst pandemics in human history, perhaps half the continent’s population was wiped out.
And Koreans have had especially good reasons to hate and fear rats for centuries. According to Robert Neff, author of Korea Through Western Eyes, this was due to the prevalence of thatched roofs in traditional Korean villages, towns and cities – and the terrible vulnerability of these buildings to fire.
“You don’t kill snakes in Korea, because they hunt rats in the roofing, and you want rats out of the roofing,” the Seoul-based historian told Asia Times. “Rats built nests next to the chimney flues where it was warm, and when the nests were dry, they would catch fire, and that fire could sweep through hundreds of houses.”
The olden days of rats running through roofs are captured in an easy-to-miss exhibit at the museum: Dozens of white, ceramic rats pear down through a gaping hole in the ceiling onto the museum-goers below. Created by artist Maeng Wook-jae, some of the rats have one eye – or three or four.
“It’s like a fairy tale!” enthused Yoo Seung-hee, a guide at the museum.
Exterminatory behavior extended well into the modern era – albeit snakes have fallen out of favor as rat killers. Exhibits show old-school rat traps – baited with bits of dried squid. Upon stepping inside, the rat triggers a wooden block that drops and crushes it.
Video clips feature senior citizens reminiscing about the attitude toward rodents in the days when Koreans did not live in apartments. Children in the 1950s and ‘60s were incentivized to bring the tails of rats they had killed to school with gifts of stationary. Those who did not deliver these trophies were given extra homework.
Posters showcase public campaigns, in which rat poisons were handed out to the citizenry and deployed on specific days of the month. A “raticidal” mentality was clearly at work. For example, if one rat dragged a piece of poisoned squid into its nest, the entire rat colony would dine upon it – and perish.
Today, Yoo notes a generational shift in attitude toward rodents. “The old generation have a very bad idea about rats,” she said. “The young have a different idea.”
The museum notes the universality of rats in global popular culture – where they are clearly not in everyone’s black books. Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Jerry of “Tom and Jerry” fame and even the device most people use to operate their computers with all suggest a degree of affection.
And there is one reason why Koreans like the rat – or at least, 2020’s specific rat.
In the days before the nation’s economic warriors adopted the dark business suit, the common dress of the people was the white hanbok, a form of traditional attire. Those threads earned Koreans the nickname, baekmin – “white people.”
“Korean people prefer white animals, we think it represents our soul or our spirit,” said Yoo. “They are very holy and very rare.”
Gazing into 2020
The Year of the White Rat is especially significant. Years demarcated by white animals, which only come round every 60 years, have higher potential than regular years, both for good and for ill.
So what do rat years portend?
They can be a sign of potential tumult. In recent history, 2008, was certainly that: It was the year the global financial crisis struck. On the other hand, 1984 passed without any Orwellian disasters. But 1972 was marked by a massive North Vietnam offensive against South Vietnam; 1960 ushered in a decade of change and youthful rebellion; and 1948 saw the victory of communist forces in the Chinese civil war and the independence of India.
So, make of that what you will. Meanwhile, the pros have much to say on the issue.
According to Kim Du-kyu, a professor of humanities and a fortune teller writing in the respected financial newspaper Money Today: “This is the year when heroes are born, so children born this year could become national leaders. And one of the biggest characteristics of this year is people can earn a lot of money.”
“Powerful leaders are born in this year,” agrees Lim Myeong-sok, a fortune-teller writing in the Chungnam Ilbo newspaper. “But major crises can happen.”
Kim Ki-seon of the Korean Folk Culture Development Institute, writing in the Namdo Ilbo newspaper is a little more specific. “This year big changes can happen,” he warned, noting that 2020 is an election year for Donald Trump. He also noted that “Prospects for Kim Jong Un are not good, there is high possibility of radical change.”
CLSA offers some personalized advice for those investors who are familiar with their personal Chinese Zodiac signs.
“It will be a year of great fortune for the Rat Pack: the Rat, Dragon, Ox, Monkey and Rooster. The Dog, Goat and Snake will fare pretty well too,” the Asia-focused securities house advised in a special report for investors, The Rat Pack Hits Town. “The Horse, Pig, Rabbit and Tiger will need to keep their wits about them and pay attention to their health, or may end up in a rat trap.”
Regardless of whether they be dragon or dog, rooster or rabbit, Asia Times wishes all readers a happy Year of the Rat!
“Every Rat Has Its Day” runs at the National Folk Museum of Korea, on the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, until March 1. Admission is free. Nearest subway: Gyeongbokgung. For more information, visit.