By Elaine Dunn
This Lunar New Year had many people, linguists included, puzzled. And the media had a field day with clever headlines such as “The big ‘yang’ theory,” “Sod off sheep! It’s the Year of the Goat” “Whatever floats your goat,” “Sheep, goat or ram debate shepherds response,” etc.
What’s the hoopla all about? In Chinese, it’s the Year of the Yang (羊), which can be translated into sheep, ram or goat in English. So … in English, this Lunar New Year had been called Year of the Sheep / Ram / Goat. Which should it be?
The two top contenders are the sheep and goat. But there isn’t a consensus. As Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post puts is, “Don’t feel too sheepish if you’ve got it wrong, as it seems no one can quite agree.”
Google actually kept track of how the Lunar New Year was being searched: the Philippines had the highest search levels for “year of the sheep, followed by Canada, Australia, U.S. and United Kingdom. “Year of the ram” is used most commonly in India, followed by Canada and the U.S. But from Jan. 19 to Feb. 14, "as anticipation for the holiday grew, searches for 'year of the sheep' and 'year of the goat' have been neck and neck,” said a Google Asia Pacific communications person.
The animal in the Chinese zodiac is often referred to as a sheep. Los Angeles’ Disneyland celebrated “Year of the Sheep.” HK Tourism Board welcomed the Year of the Sheep with a blue and pink sheep in its parade. (However, since the pink-colored one was decked out in heels and dress, would that make it the Year of the Ewe??) London’s branch of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office held Year of the Ram parties. They’re in the same camp as the Hong Kong Postal Service, which issued a series of colorful ram stamps for the occasion. Vietnamese and Cambodians celebrated the Year of the Goat as sheep do not survive in their hot weather. The Canadians seem to have settled on Year of the Goat as well. The Koreans also went with sheep. And, three major Australian cities each welcomed a year with different animal. And mainland China avoided all confusion by staying with Spring Festival!
Many Chinese consider the sheep as little more than a mindless drone, not leadership material. The goat? It’s sometimes associated with old age, defeat, blame or overall ineptitude. The ram is sometimes used to convey masculinity. But …
A Han dynasty scholar, Dong Zhongshu, once said that people “should be more like goats because: goats don’t hurt people with their horns and goats never cry or howl.”
The head of the department of Chinese language and literature at Hong Kong’s Chinese University, professor Ho Chewah also thinks it’s most likely a bearded goat! According to him, goats had positive associations, and in ancient China, were eaten by the rich. Ho thinks the Chinese character “羊” resembles an animal with two horns and a pointy face – a goat!
A Chinese lecturer of linguistics and translation studies at an Australian university said the confusion stems from the fact that Chinese uses one generic term for a certain family of animals while English is more specific in terms of gender and age. But she also pointed out that Year of the Rat / Mouse never drew as much consternation. For her, whether it’s sheep, ram or goat, it does not matter “as long as the animal has curly horns, it fits the bill.”
A Beijing-based Chinese folklorist said, “This is ridiculous. Goat and sheep are different in French and English, but what’s that got to do with Chinese traditional culture?”
In China, most people don’t care whether it’s sheep or goat even though most concede that sheep are “cuter, soft and fluffy.” Seems like only the Westerners are all wrapped up in this bleating discussion.