The Year of the Rat

2020 is the Year of the Rat. Far from being despised vermin, the rat is considered clever and charming, if sometimes manipulative and wily. In the origin story about the Chinese zodiac the rat wins the race by exploiting the Ox’s natural advantage and outwitting the cat. The rat earns its position as the number one animal in the zodiac, pushing the Ox to number two and depriving the cat of any placing. Clever rat… but perhaps not a way to win friends.

Christopher Corr’s The Great Race is a vibrant retelling of the traditional story and is included in our China and Chinese New Year collection (see below). To hear Christopher talking about this book and the inspiration for the artwork listen to the interview in our podcast archive.

To help you celebrate Chinese New Year, we have put together some quick ideas to help you mark the occasion.


You will be familiar with the delicate red paper-cuts which are synonymous with Chinese New Year. These paper-cuts are often given as gifts and might be displayed at celebrations such as weddings and other feasts. This rat paper-cut has been produced using a very sharp knife and cutting board, but simpler patterns can be achieved using marker pens and scissors. Instructables craft has some easy instructions for making a traditional cut out. Once you’ve learnt the basics, you can experiment with your own designs. Instructions for a traditional Chinese paper-cut from Instructables Craft

History of Paper Making

You could combine paper cutting with learning about the history and engineering of paper. When we think about STEAM, we tend to think about modern engineering, but paper must make it to the top of the list of influential inventions. Just think about the wide range of uses for paper, let alone the impact of the dissemination of the printed word.

The Chinese were leaders in early paper making. The year 105 A.D. is often quoted as the date when paper was invented, but archaeological investigations now confirm that papermaking had been invented two centuries before that. Early paper was made by separating the fibres from the bark of the mulberry tree and then beaten into sheet form. Later discoveries led to improved quality, such as the addition of hemp. Once paper had been invented, it was just a small step to using it for writing, and then to wood block printing. From China, papermaking spread out across the Arab world via the Silk Road.

Handmade Paper

Paper making is great fun. As well as learning about materials and how they are made, there is plenty of scope for creative experimentation. All kinds of additions, seeds, petals and leaves, can be added to the paper with some gorgeous effects. When I was teaching, I took our year 6 class to Wookey Hole paper mill to observe the skills of paper pressing and then we made our own paper for handmade books back at school.

Beware – if you are using a liquidiser, remember to put the lid on before pressing the liquidise button. On a day that we had painters working outside the classroom I forgot, and was splattered from head to foot in pink gunk, much to their amusement! Moving on quickly…

The BBC website has a video clip and lessons in paper making.

Origami Projects

For younger children, a paper craft that you could introduce is simple origami. Here are some instructions for making a rat face for your Chinese New Year festivities.

Red Packets

Another popular tradition at New Year is the gift of red envelopes or packets called yasui qian (压岁钱 /yaa-sway chyen/), literally translated as  ‘suppressing ghosts money’.  While these usually contain gifts of money, the significance is in the colour. In China red is the colour of good luck, energy and happiness, and the gift is a way to pass on your blessings. In southern China the tradition was for the married to gift the red packets to the unmarried and so they have become associated with presents for children.

A simple project for your Chinese New Year celebration is to make a simple origami envelope. Write a blessing and place it inside the envelope. Then hang it on the tree for the period of the New Year Festival. The Lantern Festival (8th February in 2020) marks the end of the celebrations and is the perfect occasion to hand out your envelopes. Each child takes an envelope from the tree and reads the blessing that has been written.

Simple Origami Envelope Tutorial 


Lantern Festival

The Chinese New Year holiday comes to its climax with the Yuan Xiao (元宵节—yuán xiāo jié), or Lantern Festival. The origins of the festival go back 2,000 years.  The festival has spiritual meaning and celebratory activities include moon gazing, spectacular lion dances, lighting lanterns and eating rice balls. Packs of white lanterns are relatively cheap and can be purchased online, or from craft suppliers. They can be painted with characters or scenes from Chinese stories. You could decorate them with characters from the Chinese zodiac story and use them as prompts to aid storytelling. Setting lanterns alight is not considered environmentally friendly, so just enjoy them in the classroom.

Chinese Superhero

Read a legend featuring the Monkey King and research the history. Discuss the similarities and differences with other folk heroes, literary heroes and superheroes that are familiar to the children. Then write your own Monkey King story.

Chinese Lettering

Teach your class how to write some Chinese characters. The strokes and the order in which they are produced are important in Chinese writing. This short tutoral shows you how to write and pronounce ‘rat’ in Mandarin.



China and Chinese New Year Curriculum Collection

Our curriculum collections cover a range of formats, making these selections an easy choice for supporting the curriculum and reading for pleasure. This specially curated collection  about China includes 7 books looking at the traditions and stories surrounding Chinese New Year as well as the history and culture of China. Indicative titles: include Dorling Kindersley’s China Through Time, Christopher Corr’s The Great Race, National Geographic’s Chinese New Year and Shiho Nunes Chinese Fables.