The Xuande emperor ruled China from 1425-1434. He was the fifth emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). His rule was one of relative stability, and he devoted much of his time to painting and writing poetry, activities at which he was accomplished. As a painter he had a free brush style. His paintings were often presented as gifts to favored members of the court; this painting, dated 1431, of a rat nibbling at lichee fruit is inscribed to a favorite eunuch.
2008 is the year of the rat in the Chinese calendrical zodiac. In the Chinese tradition the rat is regarded as clever, charming, and industrious, but also a bit of a schemer, who can at times be ambitious, selfish, and cruel. First among the signs of the Chinese zodiac — it is said that when the zodiac animals were crossing a river rat rode on the back of ox and jumped off his head just as they reached zhore, thus establishing his priority — people born in the year of the rat are leaders and innovators.
A rat year, although it may have have associations with death, is one of opportunity, especially in business. It is also a good year for socializing and enjoying food and the company of family.
Particularly in combination with many-seeded fruits (the seeds suggesting offspring), the rat is associated with fertility, and an image of rat and fruit, such as the Xuande emperor’s painting shown here, implies a wish for many offspring. What a strange gift to present to a eunuch!
The work is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.