Thursday is the beginning of the Chinese New Year, and you might be revisiting a question that you had 12 years ago when the Chinese zodiac last reached this point in its cycle. Is it the Year of the Sheep, Ram, or Goat?
Searching for “Year of the Sheep” on Google yields 175,000,000 hits. 241,000,000 for “Year of the Ram”, and “Year of the Goat” gets a mere 105,000,000 hits.
From where does the confusion come? The hanzi for the zodiac year is ?, a character that is commonly translated as “sheep” or “goat” and is also used in the words for a number of horned or ruminant animals including rams, lambs, bharals, gazelles, and alpacas.
The case is strong for the goat.
Isaac Yue, an Assistant Professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong whose research interests include Chinese Food Literature and Culture, leans towards calling it the Year of the Goat. “I’d be more inclined to translate it as goat for the simple reason if you look at the way the character yang is written, even in its ancient form, you can see that there is a pair of horns so it more closely resembles a goat than a sheep.”
Richard Sears’ incredible Chinese Etymology site shows that ? has looked remarkably consistent throughout the development of the written language.
Agreeing with this pictorial analysis is linguist Ho Che Wah, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Ho adds a cultural context. From The South China Morning Post:
“Ho said that while sheep had a long history in Chinese society, the country’s culinary past suggested the goat as the most likely animal to have been included in the zodiac.
‘In ancient China, people ate six types of animals – horse, cow, goat, pig, dog and chicken. Goat is therefore included in the zodiac, too,’ Ho said.
Goats also had a higher status among the six animals in Chinese society, as in the past, only rich people and the aristocracy could afford to eat them.
The Chinese word for ‘envy’ originally referred to a person salivating over a goat, Ho added.”
Huang Yang, a researcher on the role of sheep and goats in Chinese culture, says “if we judge from the fact that the Chinese zodiac is a Han tradition, yang are more likely goats, which are more common livestock for the Han Chinese,” adding that shaggy sheep are a common sight in north China’s prairies and were domesticated by Chinese earlier than goats.
China, of course, has diverse cultures, and there are arguments that yang could refer to sheep. Fang Binggui, a folklorist in Fuzhou suggests that what the animal is depends on regional interpretation. “People depict the zodiac animal based on the most common yang in their region. So it’s often sheep in the north while goats in the south.”
Setting aside linguistic and cultural justifications for what? is supposed to represent, it comes down to personal preference.
There’s a reason why “Year of the Ram” has by far the most hits on Google. As a zodiac sign, the ram (or naughty ram as some people like to call it) is a bold symbol that’s an alternative to the docile sheep.
Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who is nicknamed “the Wolf”, would like it very much for it to be the Year of the Sheep. “In the coming year, I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future. Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups,” he said in his Chinese New Year message.
For some, like an office clerk in Beijing named Chen Xufeng, he votes with his RMBs: “I’ve seen more goats in zodiac images, but I prefer to buy a sheep mascot, as sheep are more fluffy and lovely.” He also wonders what the fuss is about. “I’ve never thought about that question before. Do we have to tell them apart?”
Is it really so strange to insist on a single animal? We’re calling it the Year of the Yang which will also cover sheep-goat hybrids when they become more common and further complicate the debate..
Image – Original source unknown