By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: The Year of the Rat -- actually, mouse

Today (February 7) is Chinese New Year. I know, based on e-mails I receive, that this blog has at least a few readers both in Taiwan and mainland China, so especially good New Year wishes to any Chinese readers.


As many know, Chinese New Years go in cycles named after animals. This year is generally called in English the Year of the Rat. To Americans, it seems strange to honor a rat, but it turns out that the proper translation of the Chinese would be the Year of the Mouse. I am Year of the Rat/Mouse-born myself (1948).


Why do the Chinese honor mice? Mice have many offspring, which traditionally is considered a virtue in a traditionally rural culture such as China, where more children means more hands to till the land. According to tradition, mice also deposit coins in the homes where they live.


If by any chance you have ever gotten a Chinese New Year card, you may have noticed it generally includes a fish on the card. That's because the word for fish sounds the same (both in pronunciation and tone) to the word meaning "extra leftover," the idea being that if a family is lucky enough to be prosperous, extra food will be left over at the New Year dinner table even after everybody has eaten as much as they want.


New Year is the biggest family holiday in Chinese cultures, which is why the snow-related chaos in China produced so many problems: Many people, particularly workers in big cities who grew up in the countrywide, wanted to get home to see their families. People generally take off a week from work, often beginning on New Year's Day itself -- I am working with my colleagues in Taiwan on something, and it will have to wait, it seems, until after the holiday is over. Everybody is gone from work now.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 07, 2008 at 12:09 PM


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