China

Happy New Year (of the Sheep)

This year is the Year of the Sheep in the Chinese calendar.

However, it’s also known as the Year of the Goat or Ram. The ambiguity stems from the Chinese word “ yang” used to describe the animal in the Chinese zodiac. “Yang” can mean sheep or goat. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much of this until recently when twice, I heard colleagues debate whether to use sheep or goat for the New Year’s special publication. It’s an amusing question because while I’ve always thought it was the sheep, apparently some people as well as Wikipedia use the goat. The more you search, the more you’ll find different examples of sheep and goat (and even ram) for the year’s name.

When I posted about this on Facebook, it attracted some interesting responses, with an English colleague saying that Chinese words for animals are often vague (the same words are used for mouse and rat, and rabbit and hare) and a Taiwan friend explaining that there are different words for goat and sheep. Indeed, there are specific words for goat (  shanyang) and sheep (綿 mianyang) in Chinese, but those words are not commonly used. For instance, mutton and goat meat are both called “ yang rou” (rou being meat).

I and my colleagues were of course not the only ones to be puzzled. The discrepancy may even be a regional thing, though a Communist party school professor said it is more likely to be sheep since it is more prevalent among the Han, the Chinese majority. Yet, on the contrary, a HK linguist has come out and said it is the Year of the Goat, especially since the goat is a common Chinese farm animal and even highly prized for its meat.

Some Chinese and Taiwanese may think what’s the big deal as most people don’t really care. Also, some have said the animals in the zodiac are all general creatures (horse, tiger, mouse etc) and there is no need to be specific.
But in reality, it’s an interesting issue and something that is a big deal in English because it leads to confusion.

Now, goats and sheep are similar creatures and may even share each other’s physical characteristics.  But they are different animals, which some Chinese fail to grasp. One might say this is a charming characteristic of the Chinese language in that animal terms are not as diverse as English, though I might also say this suggests the sparseness and looseness of Chinese in terms of scientific and zoological terms – I’ll leave this to a future post.

The issue becomes more serious when one considers that in the Chinese zodiac, each animal has specific attributes which people born in those years share. The attributes of the Year of the Sheep include being gentle, trusting and willing to follow. Now, do these sound like what a goat is? I’d strongly think no, which is why I’ve steadfastly gone with the Year of the Sheep in this post. Anyways, the naming confusion is not even the biggest issue with the Year of the Sheep.

That’s because these attributes are considered very negative among some mainland Chinese. People who are gentle and trusting will not survive in mainland society, goes a popular line of thought, and as a result, there has been a rush among some mainlanders, and even Hong Kongers, to give birth before this year or even delay it for next year. The mainland authorities, to their credit, have tried to shoot down this belief with media reports.
I mean it’s one thing to use the calendar as a sort of traditional reference, but absolutely ridiculous to base something as major as pregnancy and births of children according to the zodiac.
Interestingly, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jay Chou (the biggest male singing star in Greater China) were all born in the Year of the Sheep.

The sheep’s reputation is no problem for Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying who issued Year of the Sheep greetings by urging Hong Kongers to be inspired by the sheep in contrast to the divisiveness of last year. In other words, Hong Kongers should be quiet and obey whatever the government says without any complaints. Given that his nickname is the Wolf, one would think it’d be an ideal situation for him if HKers were to be sheep-like. Dream on, Leung.

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5 thoughts on “Happy New Year (of the Sheep)

  1. Happy New Year! Did you have holidays? What did you do?

    The “confusion” between sheep and goat also made me think these days. So the 羊肉串 we’ve been eating all this time… was goat and not lamb? 😀 In my trip to Gansu province these holidays I didn’t see a single sheep, but I saw a lot of goats haha.

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    1. Happy New Year, Marta. I did get a week off but I stayed in Beijing. Fireworks was basically the only attraction I enjoyed. I’m recovering from a foot operation so I couldn’t really go anywhere other than colleagues’ homes.

      Good question. Both mutton and goat meat are called 羊肉, however I think mutton is more common so 羊肉串 is probably mutton. Then again, who knows given that in some places like Gansu, as you say, there are only goats.

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      1. Oooh! I hope you have a fast recovery 🙂
        I also saw (and heared) some fireworks but they were not so annoying as the first time I “suffered” them in Beijing… it was in Yuanxiaojie a few years ago and the firecrackers were nonstop for like 8 hours…

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        1. Thanks, it is recovering alright.
          8 hours nonstop is really bad. The ones by me on New Year’s Eve night lasted for only about 3-4 hours. The government clamped down on them by limiting the amount sold and the days they could be set off, which is good, haha.

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