Richmond Chimes in Year of the Rat

By Alastair Bland

Forty-seven centuries and five years ago, the Chinese began tallying the passage of years with their illustrious lunar calendar.

Today, the tradition survives in the Chinese-American community, and each Chinese New Year, which usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, sparks a blitz of firecrackers, gongs, dragon costumes, "gung hay fat choy" greetings, and a grand parade held near the end of the two-week celebration period.

This year's Chinese New Year will occur Feb. 7 and marks the beginning of year 4706. The lunar calendar follows the cycle of the moon, making "calendar drift" a bit of a problem; every 12-month period is not quite a year long, and every other year or so an intercalary "leap" month is inserted, just as the Gregorian calendar tacks an extra day onto the tail end of February every fourth year.

One of the most well-known features of the lunar calendar is its rotation of 12 charismatic animals, one for each year of the calendar cycle. This February the Year of the Rat starts. Tradition holds that a person born in the year of a particular animal bears similarities to that creature's personality, and, surprisingly perhaps, the rat represents some positive, noble and admirable traits, according to the Chinese tradition.

Those born in rat years, which of late have included 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984 and 1996, are powerful leaders, bearing great ambition and determination. Wise and smart, rat people are practical, show great charisma, can be charming and are good at acquiring the things they covet, which frequently includes money and power.

Yet rat people can be cunning, tricky, controlling, selfish and reckless and will gladly exploit others for their own gain. They choose their friends selectively, may lose their tempers easily when denied their objective or goal, and they are quick to exact revenge on those who have wronged them. Rat people are said to make good politicians.

Well-known people born during a Year of the Rat include Gwyneth Paltrow, Daryl Hannah, Cameron Diaz, Ben Affleck, Sean Penn, Samuel L. Jackson, William Shakespeare and Mozart.

Tradition mandates that rat people keep clear of horse people, with whom they do not get along, according to the lunar calendar. But when seeking love, monkey, dragon and ox people make good choices for the rat person. Such beliefs derive from a legendary tale in which 13 animals were entered in a race across a river in ancient China.

Contestants included a tiger, dog, cat and 10 others. The cat and the rat were notoriously bad swimmers, and at the start of the race each jumped on the back of the hard-working ox. But the rat was up to no good, and at the last minute before the ox reached the shore, the rodent shoved the cat into the water and leapt forward, claiming first prize. As a result, cats not only hate the water but also despise rats.

The ox earned a place among the top 12 finishers, but the cat was the odd animal out. The order of each creature's arrival at the shore correlates today to the order that each animal appears in the Chinese calendar's 12-year cycle.

The cat, which arrived at the bank cold, miserable and in last place, is not represented by the lunar calendar. This year's Chinese New Year Parade, in which costumes and floats honor the devious yet noble rodent, will take place Saturday, Feb. 23 on Grant Avenue. A San Francisco tradition since the 1860s, the parade has been directed by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce since 1958 and is now the largest celebration of its kind in the world.

However, prior to the parade's first appearances, the festival was an unheard-of event, arranged by Chinese immigrants in San Francisco as a way to retain, celebrate and showcase their culture to the young and growing ethnic melting pot of early California.

To commemorate the Chinese New Year and the beginning of the next 12-year cycle, the U.S. Postal Service has released the first in a series of stamps that feature the animals of the lunar calendar.