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Year of the Rat

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Chinese around the world welcomed in the Year of the Rat today with a bonanza of fireworks and festivals - even though a prolonged cold snap in China itself has stranded millions of people far from their families over the holiday season.



Explosions of colour could be seen in the skies across China in a centuries-old fireworks tradition that is meant to scare off evil spirits but this year also sought to raise national morale after the cold weather.



The start of the new lunar year, the most important national holiday for Chinas 1.3 billion people, followed three weeks of ice and snow storms that crippled transport and power supplies in many cities.



But even though power has been restored to 162 or the 170 worst-hit counties, millions are still without electricity or heating and the China Meteorological Administration warned that the warmer temperatures and melting snow could bring natural disasters, including landslides, in their wake.



And fortune-tellers say that caution will be the watchword for the Year of the Rat, for which they predict financial and political rumblings, tsunamis and epidemics. 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 feng shui master.



In China, state-controlled media highlighted the continued travels this week of President Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the Premier, to areas that had suffered the most from the cold weather.



The state news agency Xinhua also ran a long article focusing on the more than 14 million migrant workers in southern Guangdong province and Shanghai on the east coast who could not get home to welcome the New Year with their families.



I miss my little daughter very much. She is only one-and-a-half years old, said Wang Xiaoli, a toy factory worker in Guangdong who had been desperate to return to her family more than 1,200 miles to the north.



When I arrived at the railway station a few days ago, I was astounded to see so many people waiting for trains and I couldnt get through the crowd."



The lunar new year in celebrated widely elsewhere in Asia, including Mongolia, the Koreas and Vietnam, where it is known as Tet.



Tran Quang Thieu, 54, director of a rat extermination company on the outskirts of Hanoi, was reveling 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, Mr 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.


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