Lunar New Year

The Year of the Metal Rat

By Daniel Bromfield

It is the Year of the Rat, meaning the Chinese zodiac is starting over. A Year of the Rat is a time for new beginnings, and though cleaning one’s house is a traditional way to commemorate the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat might be a time to clean up your life and make a fresh start. Whether you are kicking a bad habit, reconnecting with loved ones or simply looking for an excuse to clear all the clutter out of your garage, Chinese tradition says this is a good time to do so. 

There is an old story that explains why the humble rat is first in the Chinese zodiac’s order of animals. 

Dragon and firl

A girl dressed for the Chinese New Year greets a new friend at a celebration for the traditional holiday. Photo by Michael Durand.

The order of animals was to be determined in a race. When the 12 competitors arrived at a river, the rat tricked the ox into giving him a ride on his back. When they reached the other side, the rat jumped off the ox’s back and, instead of thanking him, scurried ahead of him to first place. As such, the rat is associated with cleverness. It is also associated with wealth and surplus, given its prolific reproductive characteristics. 

The Chinese zodiac cycles through 12 years, so the previous years of the rat were 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, and so on. The Chinese word shǔ does not distinguish between mice and rats, but rat is the popularly used term. Rats are resilient. When it comes to the ability to thrive in any environment, the rat is one of the most successful animals in nature. 

The zodiac does not just cycle through different species but also classical Chinese elements,

In Chinese astrology, there are five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water, which  affect the year and its corresponding zodiac sign. That makes this the first Year of the Metal Rat since 1960. Metal is associated in Taoist thought with strength, resilience, a strong will and an appreciation of luxury. 

This year’s Chinese New Year took place on Jan. 25. As the Chinese New Year is lunar, its Gregorian date changes every year. It falls on the new moon that appears between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20, so it may occur on any date within that range. The festivities continue for 15 days, in this case until Feb. 8. 

During this time, the City is alive with musicians, dancers, lanterns and the color red. Red, along with many of the festivities associated with the Chinese New Year – including loud firecrackers and dragon and lion dances – is intended to drive away Nian, a legendary monster said to feed on people and animals during the fallow winter months before the New Year. Nian’s name, notably, is homophonous with the Chinese word for “year.”

Keep an eye out for lion dancers, usually accompanied by a great clatter of drums, cymbals and gongs. Avoid giving them white foods; white is the color of death and is considered unlucky. And do not confuse lions with dragons. Though they might look superficially similar, lions are usually operated by two people while dragons are operated by many people using poles.

While there are many activities commemorating the Year of the Rat throughout the City, the main event is the annual Chinese New Year Street Fair and Parade in Chinatown, which occurs on Feb. 8. For more information, visit is sponsored in part by:

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