Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Rats! Lunar New Year in Taiwan

This post goes out to any and all readers who, like the humble writer of this blog, may not be terribly well-acquainted with traditional culture on Taiwan. Taiwan Journal ran an interesting article on the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Rat in Taiwan in their recent Jan. 31 issue. By Sandra Shih, the article contains some humor, some history/trivia, and is a good read--get the full article here:

While [the 2007 movie] "Ratatouille" is an entertaining aside to the celebrity-chef phenomenon sweeping the world, a welcome spin off was that the sensitivity and wits of this much-maligned mammal were on show for all to see. But for those versed in the Chinese zodiac, observing a rat with a passion for cooking and a love of adventure on the big screen really comes as no surprise.

People who were born in the Year of the Rat have long been renowned for their passion, love of adventure and eagerness to take charge. In fact, legend has it that when the Jade Emperor was mulling over which animals should be included in the zodiac, he decided to hold a swimming race. The cat and the rat were the worst swimmers among all the animals, so they hatched a plan and decided to cross the river on the back of the ox. Since the ox was a naive beast, he agreed to carry both of them across the waterway. Just as they were about to reach the shore, the rat--in order to ensure his victory--pushed the cat into the river. Size obviously does not mean everything, but wisdom and quick thinking certainly make a difference.

. . . .

From Feb. 7, the first day in lunar calendar, the year of rat begins and initiates a new cycle of Chinese zodiac. Subsequent years follow in the order other animals finished the Jade Emperor's swimming race. This was ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. According to folk art researcher Guo Li-cheng, in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) people originally used the 12 animals to represent directions and hours in a day. Guo pointed out that scholar Lang Ying in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) also employed similar methods, "Zih is Yin, very dim and dark, so rats [living in the dark] fall into this period." Yin referred to the presence of cloud and darkness, and the hour of zih--the breaking of a day from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.--as fitting perfectly with this period of blackness. Due to the gloom at the daybreak, the characteristic of rats' living habits matched the time period.

Generally speaking, Chinese people like to associate natural phenomena with animal images, according to folklore specialist Chuang Po-ho. Chunag said that no one could neglect his zodiac sign because it occupies an important role in the imagination of the general public. "Quite a few people learned about the zodiac animals when they were young," he said. "Some people were even taught mathematics by counting one rat, two oxen or three tigers."

Fortunately for rats in Taiwan, their zodiac reputation seems to be paying dividends as eradication efforts for the year are nearly at an end. Traps, cats, professional control services and even "rat extermination week" held every year in October or November have not been enough to solve the island's age-old rat problem. Chiu Min-chung, a department head under Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration, said, "We know rats are a problem, especially in our traditional markets, but we can't completely drive them out."

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