China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Feb

The Year of the Rat not of the rat race

Different people see the world differently and different cultures see the same animal differently. Chinese view the rat, the first animal in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, as an intelligent leader, a pioneer and a conqueror. Yet the other side of the coin is a tendency to be aggressive, quick tempered and controlling. From the other end of Asia, the only two references in the Bible to rats are less flattering (Lev. 11:29; Is. 66:17).

How a mouse improved the Church

Its smaller cousin, the mouse, does not get good publicity either: “Poor as a church mouse,” means extremely poor. People do not eat in church, so mice looking for crumbs on the floor are poor indeed. What is there to eat in a church? The Eucharist! A mouse has its virtues, but religious faith is not one of them.

Theologians in the 12th century began a serious, prolonged debate on the presence of Jesus in the blessed sacrament. One question was, “If a mouse crawls into the tabernacle and eats the host, what does it receive?” The initial consensus was “God knows!”

Despite the theoretical puzzle, practical guidelines were issued that tabernacles should be solidly made and tightly closed. Beautiful tabernacles of marble or metal gradually replaced simple wooden ones. Today, Canon 938 says that every tabernacle must have a key. When the Code of Canon Law is reprinted, the poor church mouse deserves credit in a footnote for inspiring such a beautiful church fixture.

Children, don’t try this at home

In Old China, most children did not go to school. A burglar decided to teach his son the family trade. They climbed over the wall of a rich house at night. The father whispered to his boy, “Step into that closet and hand me some silk robes.” After receiving the fine clothes, the father closed and latched the door, yelled “THIEF!” and ran. People woke up, lit candles and began searching the mansion. Trapped like a rat, the boy had to think like a rat. He scratched the inside of the door with his fingernails. Someone said, “There’s a rat inside the closet” and opened the door. The boy blew out the candle, threw something to smash one window and climbed out the window of another room.

When he returned home, his father was already under the quilt. The boy yelled, “Dad, wake up! How could you do that to me? If they had caught me, they would have beaten me severely!” His father calmly asked, “How did you escape?” After his son told him, he smiled proudly and said, “My son, you should be grateful to your father. See how much I taught you in the first lesson!”

Animals and images

While China has no official animal, items closely associated with the emperor used to be called the Dragon Robe (龍袍), Dragon Emblem (龍章) and Dragon Throne (龍位). During the past quarter of a century, the fierce dragon has receded into the background to be replaced by the friendly panda in everything from cartoons, to advertisements for tourism, to stuffed animals. One commentator in the Mainland, aware of the negative image of the dragon in the west, tried to draw a distinction. He said, “No, that’s not a dragon. That’s a long (龍).” However, the Chinese term is unlikely to catch on internationally. A dragon by any other name looks just as threatening.

Branding is a big consideration in marketing today. Both nations and corporations invest heavily in promoting their logos and in pursuing counterfeiters. Selling under false pretences has a long history. An unscrupulous butcher was liable to “hang up a sheep’s head and sell dog meat” (掛羊頭賣狗肉). Jesus warned us to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing (Mt. 7:15). A more abstract way of phrasing this is “in name only,” to have the name without the reality (有名無實).

Year, month and globalisation

The second new moon of winter can come early or late, so the Year of the Rat, as timed by the civil or solar calendar, varies: 10 February 1948 to 28 January 1949; 28 January 1960 to 14 February 1961; 15 February 1972 to 2 February 1973; 2 February 1984 to 19 February 1985; 19 February 1996 to 6 February 1997; and now 7 February 2008 to 25 January 2009. Consider how much globalisation is represented in the previous sentence: the 12-year cycle comes from ancient China, the names of the months from Latin, the number of the year from the birth of Jesus in Israel, the numerals from India via Arabia, and the English alphabet from Phoenicia via Greece and Rome. Ideas have always travelled by foot, camel, horse and ship from one part of the world to another. Today, they race by satellite television and high-speed broadband at the speed of light.

Caught up in the rat race

“Rat race” is a fairly new term, perhaps no older than 1939. Two rats racing for a bit of food run faster and faster, but only one prize is available. This is called a win-lose situation.

A rat race can easily deteriorate into a lose-lose situation, where everyone is running faster, or competing harder, but no one is better off. Three examples: if one person stands up in a theatre, he can see the stage better. Then everyone stands and the result is that no one has a better view, everyone has lost the comfort of sitting, but no one wants to be the first to sit down again.

In the United States of America, a few people began buying huge vehicles for safety. Then people driving ordinary cars felt at risk. Before long, millions of expensive gas-guzzlers were on the road, but no one was safer.

A generation ago, in Taiwan, a few parents began to send their children for tutoring in the evening. Other parents were afraid their son or daughter would be at a disadvantage and before long, almost every student was enrolled in a cram school.

Free time disappeared, first for teenagers and next for pre-teens, and parents were hard pressed to pay for all the extra hours of instruction. Yet there was still only enough room in the top 10 per cent of the class for 10 per cent of the students. The rat race is crazy, as everyone realises, but who can afford to be the first to drop out?

Sometimes it takes external regulation to break a lose-lose cycle. Ushers in a theatre tell people to sit down or be shown the exit, while minimum fuel efficiency standards for automobiles reduce the percentage of oversized vehicles on the road and make it safer for small cars. But reforming the education system to reduce the pressure on students to excel has proven to be more of a challenge.

A way to end the rat race

Consider a biology experiment, with two rats looking at the same piece of cheese in the distance. If they can see each other as well as the cheese, then a frantic race ensues. But if there is a wall between them, even just a low plastic partition, then the urge to compete disappears. Each rat keeps its eyes fixed on the cheese, not on the other rat, and runs fairly quickly toward the goal with anticipation. Neither rat sprints at top speed with anxiety. There is no rat race! Only one rat will get the cheese – that result will not change, but at least neither rat will be short of breath.

The Letter to the Hebrews urges us to “keep running steadily in the race we have started, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Heb. 12:1-2). There are so many distractions in life, all the tempting prizes which can be won by those with money, power, personality or luck. Some of these pleasant things are illegal, immoral or bad for one’s health. Others are good, but of second or third-rate importance.

This month, Catholics in China are in two worlds. Chinese New Year, a time of celebration and joy, coincides with the beginning of Lent. Since both the Chinese and the Church calendar follow the moon, this happens more years than not.

What is special about 2008 is that Easter falls so early, on March 23. That is not the earliest possible date. Once every several thousand years, Easter, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring, falls on March 22. Yet 23 March 2008, will be the earliest Easter in decades.

People need a break from their usual routine, some time of rest from the frantic pace of life in a modern city. Despite material affluence and an abundance of food, modern life still conveys a message of scarcity. There are only so many places near the top of the class, only a limited number of good jobs and only so many outstanding people to meet.

The message of the Bible, however, is one of abundance, not scarcity. Yes, the themes of Lent are sober. But, as the opening line of a 19th century hymn by Father Frederick Faber says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” Entrance to heaven is not limited to people in the top 10 per cent of holiness. Believers can feel at ease helping one another draw closer to God. Catholics are not threatened by cooperating with everyone else to build a more harmonious society. These are win-win situations, not spiritual rat races.

China Bridge now wishes all our readers a safe, peaceful, and above all, refreshing Lunar New Year and a happy Year of the Rat.