The rat (shǔ, 鼠) is the first animal in the Chinese zodiac. The youngest rats are those born in the year 2008. People under this sign are believed to be popular, smart, wealthy, adaptable, reflecting some attributes of the animal such as alertness, delicacy, flexibility and vitality.
Words like timid (dǎnxiǎo 胆小), obstinate and selfish are amongst those used to describe the weaknesses of rats.
Interestingly, most Chinese idioms containing the rat character have derogatory meanings. The phrase dǎn xiǎo rú shǔ (胆小如鼠 lit. guts small like a rat) can be translated as “timid as a rat”. Shǔmù-cùnguāng (鼠目寸光) means shortsighted. Zéi tóu shǔ nǎo (贼头鼠脑 lit. thieves' head rat's brain) is used to describe someone’s furtive and stealthy behaviour.
Other Chinese rat idioms do not have such direct meanings. Shǔ dù jī cháng (鼠肚鸡肠) literally means “rat’s belly rooster’s intestine” but is used to describe somebody who is narrow-minded.
Another obscure idiom gǒu tóu shǔ nǎo (狗头鼠脑) translates as “dog head rat brain” but implies servility or an excessive willingness to serve or please others!
English speakers will be familiar with the idiom “a drowned rat” to describe someone who is very wet, having perhaps been caught in a heavy downpour. In China, however, the equivalent idiom “luò tāng jī” (落汤鸡) describes a chicken that has fallen into a soup. Whilst used to describe a thoroughly soaked individual, the phrase is also commonly used to describe someone who has suffered big losses in fame or fortune.