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The definitive animal artist Qi Baishi depicted mice gnawing books (Sotheby’s).
The Chinese artist Zhang Kunyi enjoyed showing mice or perhaps rats with turnips.

RATS are always a challenge for the designers of angpow packets. Unless you make the big rodent look like a cuter one, recipients are going to be avoiding those red envelopes like the... plague!

It is one thing to be greeted by a gilded cousin of Mickey Mouse, and quite another to get a glimpse of snarling yellow gnashers. It’s especially complicated in Malaysia, where the difference between mice and rats isn’t fully expressed in the generic word tikus.

Despite this, many societies in Asia have shown charitable concern for mankind’s least welcome co-residents. Traditionally, rats have impressed more artists in Asia than in the West.

It’s a different matter for street artists. At the top of this game is the anonymous Englishman known as “Banksy”. Rats are one of his specialities. The French counterpart uses the name “Blek le Rat”, which tells us something about his interests too.

An 1891 print by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka depicting a priest turning into a rat.

For Western graffiti artists and the Asian mainstream, it’s all about symbolism. Eastern societies like to make a symbol out of animals, and even the rat gets a look-in. In the West, rats have are symbolic of physical squalor dishonourable behaviour. Their Asian cousins, on the other hand, are blessed with many attractive qualities.

Generous and honest, the rat is also ambitious. Its resourcefulness is what makes it the number one animal in the Chinese zodiac cycle. This gives it a certain status that is seldom matched by artists’ personal enthusiasm for the species.

A white-zodiac figure of a rat, 18th century China (Sotheby’s).

There are not many painters in China who have immortalised the rat as a majestic beast or prized family pet. Their usual role is as one of the 12 zodiac animals. The other roles they can play is nibbling grapes or sustaining themselves on candles or oil lamps. They are never portrayed as vicious brutes determined to gnaw on an unsuspecting human.

RATS LEAD THE PACK

If painters have been reluctant to do justice to the rat, even more so are artists in other revered Chinese media such as ceramics and metalwork. Diners probably wanted to keep their thoughts on tastier creatures.

One important field for rat fanciers was jade. Huge numbers of animals were represented in jade, and a few are rodent-like. With some objects it’s hard to tell what animal you’re looking at. As the old saying goes: a squirrel is a rat with good PR.

Another wooden netsuke, signed Masazane, also 19th century.

In Japan, which has taken so much of Chinese culture, the attitude is radically different. The rat also leads the pack in the Japanese zodiac, but it goes much further than that. As a companion of the Japanese deity of prosperity, the rat is associated with good times. When the harvest is bountiful, these creatures are around to share the good fortune; when the harvest is bad, people are watching the rice so carefully the rats don’t have a chance.

Wood netsuke of a rat with two offspring, signed Ikko, 19th century.

There are countless representations of them in tiny wood or ivory netsuke. These toggles were among the closest things to the Japanese heart and represent everything from bathing beauties to skeletons.

Where rats are depicted, there is something like cuddliness about them. The same applied to larger Japanese ivory and bronze sculptures, The rat was not a creature to be feared or despised, but a vital part of the great Shinto earth tradition.

The renowned Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming was clearly impressed by the vigour of the rat in this 1989 work (Sotheby’s).

Other parts of Asia tend not to share quite the same enthusiasm as Japan. Tibet has depictions of jewel-vomiting mongooses, which might be mistaken for a rat which chose the wrong rubbish. There are also Himalayan images of awe-inspiring deities holding a rat among the severed heads and other body parts that make up their accessories.

RATS IN HINDUISM

A black stone stele of Ganesha from northeastern India, circa 10th century. If you look carefully there is a rat near Ganesha’s foot (Christie’s).

In Southeast Asian art, the rat makes almost no showing at all. The only other part of this continent that rivals Japan in its acceptance of rats is India. The ultimate expression of this is the ever-popular Hindu god Ganesha.

In theory, this engaging elephant-headed deity is almost inseparable from his rat. In practice, not every sculpture shows this. There are no doubts about the association, but for some reason the loyal companion is often left out.

This could be because it is not always immediately identifiable as the species in question. Sometimes the rat is enormous enough for Ganesha to be able to dance on it – and he is no pint-sized deity. Much of the time he’s riding it, which is another remarkable feat.

The attitude to rats in the Hindu tradition is compassionate. In India, they still tend to be seen in the same way that Westerners view squirrels. Most of all, it is their determination that is respected. Ganesha is known as the Remover of Obstacles, making the ideal team with his smaller vehicle, whose teeth can chew through anything.

The definitive English rat, Beatrix Potter’s Samuel Whiskers, shown turning a kitten into a pudding.

It’s unlikely that the rat’s turn in the zodiac spotlight is going to change global understanding much, though. It would be as hard to imagine a sluggish, stupid Asian rat as to rewrite Beatrix Potter so that the worst villain is a squirrel. As things are, the baddest baddie is the fat rat, Samuel Whiskers!

Follow Lucien de Guise on Instagram @crossxcultural

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