Big Yang Theory: Is China entering the year of the sheep or goat?

Confusion about interpretation of zodiac ahead of the country’s biggest annual holiday

Two people stand next to an installation of goats in Beijing in celebration of the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year. There is some confusion in China over whether the coming holiday, which starts on Thursday, marks the Year of the Goat or the Year of the Sheep. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Two people stand next to an installation of goats in Beijing in celebration of the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year. There is some confusion in China over whether the coming holiday, which starts on Thursday, marks the Year of the Goat or the Year of the Sheep. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

 

In China, it’s becoming known as the Big Yang Theory.

“Yang”, as it is in Chinese, translates as both “sheep” and “goat”, and also can be “ram” or “ewe”, so there is a certain amount of confusion about what kind of Lunar New Year we are facing into this week.

Whether the zodiac sign for the coming holiday, which starts on Thursday, is going to be the Year of the Goat or the Year of the Sheep, people are feeling sheepish ahead of the country’s biggest annual holiday, celebrated by Chinese people all over the world.

Despite the firecrackers, the red envelopes of money and the air of celebration, is this maybe the Year of the Sheepgoat?

There are 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac, and most are fairly easy to interpret – the rat, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the rooster and the monkey especially, although ox is controversial (Ox? Bull? Cow?), as is the sheep. Or goat.

In the oracle bone script where Chinese found its origins, the characters show a hooved animal with two horns and a pointy face, which could be any of them.

According to the Global Times newspaper, Chinese folklorists attribute the year to the goat, because it was popular among Han Chinese farmers back then, and images from the time show a billy-goat with a beard.

“Chinese culture is so extensive and profound, no wonder some foreigners can’t understand. Actually, just using the word yang could save them a lot of trouble,” wrote one webizen on the microblogging website Sina Weibo.

Professor Ho Che-wah, head of the Department of Chinese language and literature at Chinese University in Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post that food culture pointed to the goat as the most likely animal to have been included in the zodiac from its inception.

“In ancient China, people ate six types of animals – horse, cow, goat, pig, dog and chicken. Goat is therefore included in the zodiac too,” said Mr Ho.

He went on to describe how the word “beautiful” in oracle bone script looks like a person with head ornaments made with goat horns. Apparently the Chinese word for “envy” originally referred to a person salivating over a goat, he added.

In his slightly less poetic address to the Chinese people, President Xi Jinping left out any mention of the sheep or goat issue, but focused instead on the major challenges facing China in a year when economic growth slowed significantly and pressure mounted to really grow the domestic economy after years of inward investment.

“We are proud of our great country and we are proud of our great people,” Mr Xi said. “We must give our respect to the work of the industrious and courageous Chinese people and their extraordinary innovative spirit and achievements.”

“This year, we are facing situations no less challenging and complicated, and we must stay close to the people and promote reform, innovation, justice and a better standard of living with more vigorous efforts,” he said.

And goats also win, according to Han dynasty scholar Dong Zhongshu, because of the three virtues they have to teach: that people should learn from goats, that the goat doesn’t hurt people with its horns, that it never cries or howls, and its kids always bow down on front legs when drinking milk, symbolising filial piety.

According to Xinhua, Mr Xi called on the populace to “keep a sober mind, avoid empty talk, make practical efforts and overcome all challenges.”

Is this sheep or goat behaviour?

According to the South China Morning Post, there is a rush of women seeking caesarean sections right now, keen to keep their babies within the extremely special extremely special Year of the Horse.