Rats and rat products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.

No Place For The Rat

A Story by Shi Lefan

Rat is the first animal of the Chinese zodiac. There are many Chinese idioms related to rats and most of them are critical about humans who are seen to have rat characteristics, such as being imprudent, cowardly and surreptitious. The symbolic association of rats to meanness is illustrated in a Chinese legend, where the Jade Emperor had to choose the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. 

At first, the zodiac comprised the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog, pig and cat, but there was no place for the rat. The cat was very happy knowing that it was chosen as a zodiac member, but it was also afraid that it would miss the time to meet the emperor. The cat asked his friend, the rat, to wake him up that morning, which the rat promised to do. However, the rat did not wake the cat up and went to meet the emperor himself. The rat told the Jade Emperor that the cat looked down upon the emperor and was still sleeping at home. This irritated the emperor who decided to replace the cat with the rat as one of the zodiac signs. 

When it was time to decide who would be first in the twelve zodiac, the rat climbed to the top of the ox’s horn which prompted the other animals to believe that the rat was very capable to be able to stand so high. Therefore, even though the rat is the first animal in the Chinese zodiac, it is also held in contempt. The legend ends stating that this was the reason for the rat to be spurned by people and to become the enemy of cats. The rat also symbolizes vitality due to its strong reproductive capacity, and shrewd intelligence.

A Chinese rat-catcher. Ink drawing, Date: 1800-1899. Wellcome Collection
Two mice and a melon vine, formerly attributed to Zhao Boju (ca. 1120s-ca.1162), Qing dynasty, 18th century, China,The Freer Gallery of Art