Caution will be the watchword for the Year of the Rat, the new lunar year that begins Thursday, as Chinese fortune tellers predict financial and political rumblings, tsunamis and epidemics in the year ahead.

The reason, they say, is that water and earth - two of the five elements Chinese mystics believe are at the root of all things - are in conflict in 2008.

“Earth usually conquers water, but it is too weak to control the rat, which symbolises the most powerful water,'' said Raymond Lo, a Hong Kong master of feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of trying to achieve health, harmony and prosperity by the arrangement of dates and numbers, building design and the placement of objects.

Year of the Rat predictions seem as though they're already coming true in China, where freakishly frigid temperatures in the last three weeks have claimed at least 60 lives. The worst snow storms in five decades have crippled transportation, leaving millions stranded during the busiest travel week of the year, similar to the Christmas holidays in the West.

Meanwhile, the people in Vietnam have turned their thoughts to the animal being honoured this year.

Tran Quang Thieu, 54, director of a rat extermination company on the outskirts of Hanoi, was revelling in the Vietnamese belief that the rodent population multiplies during a lunar rat year.

“This holiday will mark the start of a booming year for us, so this is a special Tet,'' Thieu said. “From a spiritual standpoint, I hope that our rat-killing techniques become more popular this year, so that everyone can protect their crops, factories and businesses from being ruined by rats.''

The legend

The rat is the first of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac's 12-year cycle and symbolizes new beginnings.

Legend has it that the rat beat the other 11 animals in a race, not because it was any faster, but because of its cunning. After lying to the tiger about the day of the race, the rat rode most of the way on the ox before leaping off and making it first past the finish line.

Many people celebrate the day by eating a rice cake soup for breakfast, playing traditional games like a “yutnori'', a board game involving wooden sticks, and spending quality time with family.

In Hong Kong the banks have printed up millions of fresh notes to fill “hong bao'', or red envelopes traditionally given to children during the celebration.


Some countries will see new leaders this year, including in the United States, where a new president will be elected in November. Celebrity fortune teller Peter So was coy about who he thought would win the race.

“I can only say Hillary Clinton stands a better chance, as I don't see that Barack Obama or (Republican hopeful) John McCain will have a good year,'' So said.

People born on the Year of Rat

Authors William Shakespeare and Truman Capote, actors Marlon Brando and Cameron Diaz, Britain's Prince Charles and climate change champion Al Gore.