January 25, 2020, marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat 鼠, the first animal in the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese character shu 鼠can refer to both the rat or mouse. In the traditional Chinese calendar, each year bears an animal zodiac symbol. People born in a specific year are thought to have attributes of that year’s animal.
Burial figure of a calendrical rat, China, moulded earthenware, Han Dynasty, 206 BC-220 AD, 24.8 × 6.9 cm
ROM2019.30.1, Far Eastern Department Acquisition Fund
The rat rarely appears as a decorative motive on pottery or on literati paintings like some of the other zodiac animals do. However, they are a popular subject in folklore and stories that flourished during the late Qing dynasty and early Republic era. One such popular tale is called The Wedding of the Rats’ Daughter 老鼠嫁女. The story goes once upon a time, in a village of rats, a couple had a beautiful daughter and they loved her very much. When the daughter came to the age to be married, the parent rats wanted to marry her to the most powerful being. First, they went to ask the sun seeing that he shines brightly above the sky. However, the sun said I am not the most powerful since the cloud can easily block my light. So, the rats went to the cloud and ask him to marry their daughter. The cloud refused stating that I am not the most powerful since the wind can easily blow me away. The rats then went to see the wind, the wind replied that he is also not the most powerful since the wall can easily block him. The rats went to find the wall, the wall tells them that a rat would be more powerful than him since it can easily make a hole in the wall. The rats thought that perhaps we should marry our daughter to the cat since we are afraid of him. Therefore, on the third day of the Chinese New Year celebration, the rats happily married their daughter to the cat. However, the cat began to eat the rats participating in the ceremonial procession.
Lady mouse's wedding, Jiajiang, Sichuan, China, woodblock print, ink and colour on paper, 19th - mid-twentieth century, 52.5 × 34.2 cm
There is one woodblock print (969.168.22) in the ROM’s collection that depicts the rats marrying off their daughter. Many similar stories like the abovementioned tale are often used to entertain but they also embody moral content and closely reflect traditional beliefs. These prints and papercuts were mainly used in the households during Chinese New Year for auspicious wishes such as exterminate rats and wish for an abundant year of harvest. These New Year prints, which also depict other imagery and deities, were hung on the door and around the household in the hopes of bringing good fortune and prosperity in the New Year.
Papercut of a rat, China, Cut paper, 20th century, 8 × 6.2 cm
ROM922.214.171.124, Gift of Dr. Ken Dent
To celebrate the Year of the Rat, a special exhibition presents a selection of exquisite objects from the ROM’s Chinese collection, located in the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Gallery of China on Level 1.
This blog is by Kara Ma.