Chinese New Year – Is It the Year of Sheep, Ram, or Goat?
There are some interesting discussions in the West regarding the name of this year in the Chinese calendar. There are many news reports talking about this, but it is just a bit confusing for many. Birmingham Mail has it that the Japanese call the year “sheep”, and the Vietnamese call the year “goat”. Manchester Evening News calls the year “ungulate animal, usually with horns on its head”. Daily News calls it the year of “any ruminant horned animal” and researches the fact that the Chinese can refer to the animal as a ram, sheep, or goat.
Why the confusion not only in the West, but even among the Chinese? The Chinese word for this year is “羊”, pronounced “yang”. It is a general term for non-bovine creatures with horns, and its hide, fur, horns, and bones are usable. Its meat and milk are edible for humans. These creatures include sheep, gazelle, ram, goat, etc.
I got it wrong too, because contemporary Taiwanese images, paintings, drawings, advertisements, etc. often depict the year using wooly sheep or ram. What exactly is the original animal in Chinese tradition? I personally think the most reliable way is to refer to the folklore that explains the order of the Chinese zodiac signs.
According to the PowerPoint slide prepared by an educational institution in Taiwan, the story says that it is a goat. Yet what is more reliable than the story told by the Chinese government themselves? A webpage from the Chinese government tells the most common folklore on the origin of the twelve animals of the Chinese calendar and how they were ordered in such a way. The page says that it is a goat. Doubtlessly, the most ancient and original animal in Chinese astrology is neither a ram, nor a sheep, nor a gazelle, but a goat.
My colleague travels to China often, because we at Gevin inspect the goods and their quality control ourselves for every batch of product we produce. Moly, my colleague, spends almost one third to half the time in China every year to inspect, communicate, and source new factories. He is also a highly skilled photographer and loves traveling to take great looking photographs. He’s been to every province in China. He says that it has to be goat in ancient China. Why? The reason is simple: the Chinese farm goats, not sheep. Sheep are mainly found in the provinces 新疆 (Xinjiang), 寧夏 (Ningxia), and 西藏 (Tibet), all around the edges of China. These provinces were not part of ancient China. The Chinese weren’t familiar with sheep – but they were very familiar with goats.
Therefore according to the most popular traditional folklore on the Chinese zodiac, and even its geographical history, the animal is in fact goat. It is the Year of the Goat.
Now comes the question: why are the Chinese / Taiwanese people themselves confused? Why refer to the year with images of sheep or ram? We call it the year of “yang”, not specifically “shan yang” (goat), or “gong yang” (ram), or “mian yang” (sheep). This allows ambiguity. Cartoon drawings or even photographs of wooly sheep or ram are considered more adorable and cuddly than goat by most Chinese and Taiwanese people. Commercial products take advantage of the ambiguous word and use these more appealing creatures to make money, so people are now more and more directed toward sheep and ram instead of goat.
It is therefore much less reliable to ask a random person in China or Taiwan on the street the exact animal the Chinese calendar refers to this year. They are most likely confused themselves (like me). Looking up the sources and its background, however, and you will always end up with one answer: goat.Written on February 24, 2015 at 2:34 pm