The rat and the cat make strange bedfellows, and other Chinese idioms


  • Animals
  • Thursday, 30 Jan 2020

A Chinese brush painting by Chan to illustrate the Chinese idiom, mao shu tong mian (cat and rat sleeping together). — Illustration: SIMON CHAN

The Rat may be small but, due to its quick-wittedness, it takes the No.1 spot in the 12-year cycle of animals in the Chinese zodiac.

Legend has it that it hitched a ride on the back of the Ox in the Great Race organised by the Jade Emperor. Near the finishing line, the Rat jumped off and reached the finish line before the Ox.

In Chinese culture, the Rat is deemed to be intelligent and resourceful but lacking in courage. It is also seen as hardworking, thrifty and good at seizing opportunities. The Rat is also symbolic of wealth, surplus and fertility.

In the old days in China, the rat was most hated as it destroyed farmers' crops and food supplies. But other cultures hold it in high regard. For instance, ornamental rats are kept as symbols of good fortune, and some temples revere the rat because of its ability to sense impending natural catastrophes.

In over 100 Chinese idioms (chengyu in Mandarin) about the Rat, this animal is always held in contempt and never praised. In fact, the Rat is always given a derogatory label!

Chinese brush artist Simon Chan said: “Since olden days, there has been much hatred for the rat because it scurries around in the gutters, and is deemed to be a dirty and smelly creature. Rats also posed a health risk because they transmitted diseases, besides being household pests.”

Still, “every 12 years, the Rat gets recognition as the reigning Chinese animal zodiac," Chan said.

This being the Year of the Golden Rat, Chan shares some Chinese idioms about the Rat:

Dan xiao ru shu (small-hearted like a rat): A timid person who dares not take on challenges.

Diao tou shu cuan (rat turns back and runs away): In chaos, the person runs haphazardly.

Feng tou shu cuan (cover one's head and run like a panicked rat): Fleeing in fear at the slightest hint of danger or setbacks.

Guan cang lao shu (rats in the government’s rice store): People with strong backing have no fear in committing wrongdoings.

Guo jie lao shu (rat crossing the street): A bad guy who is hated by everybody.

Hu shu zhi tu (fox and rat): People with low mentality who commit wrongdoings; the scum of society.

Hu tou shu wei (tiger’s head rat’s tail): A person is gung-ho when starting a project but gradually his interest wanes.

Lang yan shu mei (wolf’s eyes, rat’s eyebrows): A person with a fierce demeanour.

Lao shu jian mao (rat encounters the cat): Caught in a very frightening situation.

Mao ku lao shu (cat crying over the rat): An insincere act of sympathy.

Mao shu tong mian (cat and rat sleeping together): A superior is protective of his subordinates because they conspire to commit crimes.

Mu guang ru shu (like rat’s eyes): A cunning person who is up to no good.

Niao jing shu cuan (frightened bird and running rat): A chaotic situation; helter-skelter.

Qi shu nan tou (difficult to catch the rat hiding behind objects): It is hard to take action against bad hats who have strong backing.

Que mu shu bu (bird’s eyes and rat’s steps): A very panicky situation.

She tou shu yan (snake’s head rat’s eyes): An ugly person with bad intentions.

Shi shu tong xue (10 rats in one hole): Catching all in one swoop.

Shi shu zheng xue (10 rats fighting for a hole): Bad guys fighting among themselves.

Shu ru niu jiao (rat goes into the cow’s horn): A person who is losing his power and influence.

Shu shi wu geng (rat’s faeces spoil the soup): Adding something extra to another person’s work is not necessarily a good thing. One could spoil a job well done.

Yi li er shu (using the wolf to lure and catch the rat): Taking silly actions to no avail.

Zhi shu ji qi (throw things at the rat but afraid to break nearby utensils): Being indecisive about the next recourse.

Zhuo shu na mao (catch the rat, grab the cat): Having control and being able to overpower your rivals.

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