A famous Chinese story describes a contest set by the Buddha, or sometimes the Jade-Emperor of Daoism—a race to determine who would be the first Animal in the Cycle of Time. At the end of the race was a mighty river. Ox was the only animal strong enough to cross. Rat small yet clever jumped on Ox’s back and jumped off his nose just in time to cross the finish line first. Rat won the honor of first in the cycle, and the Character of Rat, Rat Qi, came to represent the wisdom, virtue (te), and resourcefulness of all things small.
Of the 12 Zodiac animals, some are small and some are large. The differences in size symbolize the Chinese view that strength comes in all sizes, and that every perspective is valuable and has a proper place. As a cycle of View Teachings, the 12 Qi Characters are a study in perspective and represent 12 (or really 60) ways of viewing the world. We find wisdom through learning our own perspective in contrast/relation to others. The tallest rat will never see the world in the same way as a Horse, so which perspective is correct? The question is of course meaningless—both are valid and describe different perspectives. Rat Qi represents the perspective of little creatures, the most “zoomed in” quality of life.
The Natural Element of the Rat is Yang Water—the power of the weak, the yielding, the adaptable, the soft, the pliant to overcome all obstacles, like water carving the Grand Canyon. Water may be weak, but through diligent perseverance it carves canyons, and in great mass, waves devastate. This is the Yang Water nature of Rat Qi—the paradoxical strength of weakness.
But do not let the image of smallness fool you, Rat Qi is anything by “mousy.” Rat Qi is definitely Yang, and the power of the Rat is ambitious and unstoppable like water. Yang Water also represents synthesis, sentiment, sensitivity, reflection, cooperation, persuasion, and effectiveness, among other virtues.
Of all the 12 Animals, I find people most dismayed to find out they are Rats. This is due largely to the image of the Rat as a rodent, a vermin, and a carrier of disease in Western culture. In Asian cultures, the Rat has a much different image, one that I would like to encourage.
The Rat of Chinese Cosmology was well known to farmers as the “Grain Rat.” Grain Rats would appear with the harvest, and so in Asia, the Rat has always been associated with prosperity, wealth, resources, and with the rewards of diligent hard work. In many forms of Asian Lore, the Rat is the God of Wealth, and Rat Years in Asia are considered auspicious and expected to be profitable in every sense of the word.
That being said, the symbol of wealth is important and often glossed over. People are all too quick to associate wealth with money, especially Americans. Understanding wealth, however, is essential to understanding Rat Qi. What is wealth? In short, wealth is resources—material, food, energy, land, intelligence, etc, and money is an abstract symbol measuring these tangible/demonstrable realities. And why are resources important to the Rat? Because they are tiny.
Individually, Rats are small and not very strong, and so they always appear in groups and work together to mange resources to their advantage. Together Rats can undermine an entire building by gnawing and nibbling away at the foundation piece by piece. For this reason, Rat Qi represents the fact that all humans must make alliances. Alone, we can’t do much, but together, we can accomplish anything.
In the Chinese View, individuals are pretty much redundant. It is only through alliances that we do anything. No person ever did anything great. Period. Our culture exalts heroes, saints, sports stars, and so on, but all sports heroes play on a team. So Rat Qi is the antithesis of American Individualism, for it views social life as central to existence and represents the human virtue of community in the most basic sense. Sociability is required to survive, and no person is special. This is a “Rat realization. Rat Qi, in a sense, stands for the little guy, the underdog, the meek, and the unacknowledged, and it abhors the abuse of the strong over the weak. The Character Piglet from Winnie the Pooh represents this virtue of the small, and there is a popular book on this very subject.
Because the Rat is small, it must band together with others, and it must value resources. Rat Qi represents a fundamental insight into the nature and value of “things,” appearances, stuff—the resources that compose the world. And in order to work with resources Rat must take them apart. Not to analyze (that’s Rooster), but to make it small enough to carry.
Rat Qi represents the most “zoomed in” quality to life—the Rat is very close to everything and sees how everything works, how everything is composed, sort of like a magnifying glass or microscope. The impulse to “zoom in” in order to understand is a Rat impulse. The impulse to take apart, dismantle, and dissect are also Rat impulses, again not to analyze but simply to observe, look closely, and take in the details. Modern science is very Rat, and I in fact know many Rat scientists. Academia, in general, is very Rat like, especially the kind that involves footnotes.
Rat Qi probes, inquires, and studies in order to make sense of the overwhelming amount of data we perceive through the senses. Rat power breaks everything down in to bite sized manageable pieces. This ability allows for incredible “productivity” in the Western sense, and as such, Rats are very capable.
A recent trip to India was mostly being organized by Tigers (myself included), and of course, like all things run by Tigers, we had great vision and inspiration but terrible follow through. As soon as our Rat friends Wendy and Kanika joined, all the pieces came together and everything, little by little, was organized. They made the trip happen in a way I could not even comprehend. For me, this was a great lesson in Rat Qi. Wendy saw everything in pieces and was able to manage the variables amidst the chaos of India.
Every Character has their place—Tigers need the little bits managed so they can be enigmatic, so they can shine and dazzle and then disappear. If things were left to Tigers, we would have amazing creative visions, but little would ever happen. Tiger Qi throws out a hundred big ideas, but Rat Qi narrows everything down to something we can actually do. Rat Qi makes the world go ‘round as a kind of engineering force discovered through observation and activated from of a kind of nervous compulsion. Rat Qi sees that everything is constantly falling apart, and someone needs to pick up the pieces.
Rats (the animals) tend to have big bulging eyes, and they make short, quick, twitchy movements. Rat Qi has a nervous quality due to its constant observation, evaluating safety, taking stock.
The observant quality of Rat Qi applies to all areas of life. Rat’s acute observation makes them incredibly studious, industrious, clever, and insightful. In essence, Rat Qi is the wisdom of the compound nature of things, that everything is composed of pieces ad infinitum. This wisdom communicates that everything compound is impermanent, which is the source of Rat’s power and fear.
Seeing into the compound nature of everything, Rat Qi seeks to work with reality as it is which can turn fear into insight. Yang Water when depleted clings when things fall apart, but when energized it can actively let go, Water representing dissolution and Yang being the active principal.
Rat Qi represents the beginning of the Cycle emerging from Pig Qi, which is why I began with Pig. If Pig represents complete dissolution, everything falling apart, Rat Qi represents everything coming back into fragments, still dissolute but active, the dust cloud settling, and everything coming back into focus, starting over. Pig is the final blowout, the party, the big bang, and Rat is left to pick up the pieces. Pig parties through the night, and Rat picks up the beer bottles and cigarette butts the morning after. Rat Qi can therefore manifest as a kind of hard boiled responsibility to “clean up” the world.
Rat Qi, embodied in individuals, is first and foremost charming. As astute social observers, Rats make fantastic actors, mimics, and they love being center stage, especially when they can play at being someone else. Other people are resources, so Rat charm is a kind of social power and is often their greatest resource in life. Rat Qi is fundamentally social/community oriented and cooperative but more in the sense of making things happen than out of pure enjoyment. That being sad, Rats are fun loving and funny, and they often possess a rye kind of wit derived from their social observations.
Rat Qi is and methodical and “detail oriented.” Many of the professions we value in our culture are very “Rat.” Engineering, accounting, “I-T,” consulting, what we can call information work, anything that requires manipulating data, money, or numbers, moving around bits and pieces, filling out spread sheets and forms—all of this is Rat work, busy work, and it goes to show that our culture actually exalts and highly values Rat Intelligence, which is incomprehensible to some Characters. Math and the sciences—chemistry, physics, biology, and western medicine are also very Rat like, what we can call reductionist disciplines.
Rat Qi revels in detail. And although I have mentioned science and math, Rat Qi can be wonderfully artistic. Rats can spend hours painting and penciling in details, focusing in and fleshing out pattern, shade, and texture. A famous architect once said, “God is in the details;” this is a very Rat sentiment. Shakespeare, in theory, was a Rat, and he invented thousands of words by taking existing words apart and putting then putting them back together in new formations, words like auspicious, sanctimonious, and multitudinous. Shakespeare also exemplified the poetic nature of Rat insight.
Rat Qi also exemplifies the Chinese Virtue of industry, diligence, and perseverance. Imagine you’re on a long journey and come across a mountain in your path. Some characters might go around; some might climb to the top heroically overcoming obstacles; some might wax philosophical and never go anywhere. Rat Qi might get a shovel and carve a path through the mountain one shovel-full at a time. You may laugh at such an approach, but Rat Qi can actually move mountains in this fashion.
At its best, Rat Qi is diligent and patient. Perhaps your family lost everything in a war, exiled to a foreign land with nothing. So the family bands together and starts a small dry cleaning business. For three generations the family perseveres and eventually builds back their fortune. This is Rat work ethic—eventually the little things pay off. Since Rats are famously discrete and frugal, they can manage resources, money, and make a little go a long way.
As you can imagine, the virtues of Rat Qi have their opposites. Rat charm and social observation can turn to nervousness and complaining, seeing endless faults and problems in themselves and others. Rat Qi can be self-conscious, worried about appearance, nit picky, and overly critical of details.
At its core, Rat Qi is very susceptible to the fear of impermanence, deficiency, and loss, which can turn to a panic over resources. This can turn to scheming, manipulating situations, people, things, money, and so on, in order to create safety, security. This can also turn to stinginess and selfishness, and Rats are often stereotyped as hoarders, living in clutter, developing strong attachment to possessions.
Rat can turn cowardly, afraid to take risks. Rats can easily become overwhelmed with details and so become paralyzed, over analyzing and never taking action. “But…wait!” is a very Rat response.
Rat Qi can feel small in a big scary world. Alone Rat Qi is vulnerable. Without a nest--resources, friends, partners, family, or a support system, Rats are at their weakest and can wander, felling lost and depressed.
Rat Qi when charged can be an immense ability to focus, but depleted, the close in quality of Rat Qi can turn fidgety, restless; it can turn to over-concentration and a racing mind, endlessly thinking, reevaluating, second guessing, a kind of mono-focus or tunnel vision that can obsess.
Because Rat Qi is fragmented, Rats have the ability to compartmentalize their experience. They can put memories, feelings, thoughts, emotions, and so on into categories and boxes. If traumatized, this compartmentalization can become detached, unemotional, and unable to connect to whatever they lock up.
The fundamental impulse of Rat Qi is to make sense of the world. Rat Qi represents active dissolution, characterized by Yang Water, what we can call “activated impermanence,” a primal fear which can easily turn spiritual, and I have met many Rats with a strong spiritual bent. Rat spiritual insight awakens through deep observation, breaking down appearances. Buddhist Logic, I find, is a very Rat like spiritual discipline, teasing, taking apart concepts and ideas in order to show their relativity.
This observant quality of the Rat is available to all of us every Rat Month, which is in the beginning of winter, every Rat Day, and every Rat Hour, which is between 11pm and 1am. Rat Hour is the most active part of the early night, a time when we dissect and tease apart the fragments of the day in dream.
I hope you enjoyed this exposition of Rat Qi. Stay tuned; in the next installment, I will explore the nature of Ox and Yin Earth.
Tiger's Play--the View Teachings of Chinese Astrology
This page is your source for short, pithy articles on the view teachings of Chinese Astrology. Here, I will share everything I have learned about how to follow Astrology as a spiritual path.