The traditional East Asian lunar calendar consists of a repeating twelve-year cycle, with each year corresponding to one of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. The association of these creatures with the Chinese calendar began in the third century B.C. and became firmly established by the first century A.D. The twelve animals are, in sequence: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Each is believed to embody certain traits that are manifested in the personalities of the people born in that year. This Lunar New Year, which begins on January 25, 2020, is the Year of the Rat, a creature characterized as active, agile, and smart.
Rats and mice, traditionally considered the same animal in East Asia, have been close companions of humans since ancient times. The earliest written Chinese character for “rat” (shu) appears on a thirteenth-century-B.C. oracle bone. In the Chinese classics, rats figure prominently in political satires, such as the poem “Big Rat” in the Book of Songs, which dates from the eleventh to the seventh century B.C. As the Chinese lunar calendar was adopted by Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and Vietnam, the rat became a popular motif in various artistic media, as well as in folklore throughout East Asia. To celebrate the Year of the Rat, the Museum is pleased to present a selection of remarkable works from its collection that illustrate the animal’s ubiquitous presence in people’s daily lives.