Year of the sheep or goat?

People walk past a statue of a goat, displayed as decorations for the upcoming Lunar New Year in Beijing on February 16, 2015.

The coming Chinese New Year has stirred a debate in China over which zodiac creature is the "correct" one, but Chinese folklorists dismiss the fixation on animals as missing the point.

Traditional astrology in China attaches different animal signs to each lunar year in a cycle of 12 years.

The symbol for the new year starting on Feb 19 is the "yang", which can refer to any member of the caprinae subfamily - or even beyond - depending on what additional Chinese character it is paired up with.

For example, a goat is a "mountain yang", a sheep is a "soft yang" and a Mongolian gazelle is a "yellow yang".

Both the goat and sheep appear in Chinese New Year paintings, paper-cuts and other festival decorations.

Folklorists say it does not matter which is used since the zodiac sign was chosen for the Chinese character's auspicious connotation rather than the specific animal - at least in the beginning.

"This 'yang' is fictional. It does not refer to any specific kind (of sheep or goat)," Mr Zhao Shu, a researcher with the Beijing Research Institute of Culture and History, told AFP.

"Yang" is a component of the written Chinese character "xiang", which means auspiciousness, and the two were interchangeable in ancient Chinese, experts say.

It is also a part of the character "shan", which counts kindness and benevolence as among its meanings.

"Therefore, 'yang' is a symbol of... blessing and fortune and represents good things," said Mr Yin Hubin, an ethnology researcher with the China Academy of Social Sciences think-tank.

"It is connected to the original implication of the Chinese character as an ideogram and reflects the world view of the Chinese people in primitive times," he added.

Some expectant Chinese mothers are, however, scheduling Caesarean sections to give birth before the current year of the horse ends, according to media reports.

The rush apparently stems from a Chinese superstition held by some that nine out of 10 sheep will be unhappy in life, a belief dismissed Mr Yin as "ridiculous".


More often than not, the animal plays a positive role in Chinese folklore, experts say. A fable that can be traced back to over 1,500 years ago depicts five goats carrying crops in their mouth to save people suffering from years of drought in Guangzhou.

The southern boom town has enjoyed timely wind and rain ever since, according to the story.

But some scholars argue that the goat is a better option for the traditional Han Chinese holiday as it is a more commonly kept farm animal in China, Xinhua reported.

Many Chinese appear to be unfazed by the debate.

"The year of the yang, 2015, is neither a sheep nor a goat. It is a beautiful and elegant milk yang! Abundant milk, clothes and food," wrote one user on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

This article was first published on February 17, 2015.
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