sheep goats

Settle It Once and For All: Is it the Year of the Goat, Sheep or Ram?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is complicated

Any newcomer to China will quickly find out that you shouldn’t ask too many questions. It may draw attention to the fact that something isn’t known, and cause further problems down the line. And yet, someone just had to ask: Is the upcoming new year the “Year of the Sheep” or the “Year of the Goat”?  And where does “Year of the Ram” come from?!

The Chinese language doesn’t differentiate between the three according to the term itself, leaving it up to eager Westerners to find the difference. However, the process of answering this is to pit regions of China against each other for cultural superiority.

Short Chinese lesson: The majority of Chinese terms are two characters long, with the first character often acting as a qualifier for the second, thus creating compound words with multiple possibilities. The term for “sheep”in Chinese is 绵羊 (miányáng) and the term for “goat” is 山羊 (shānyáng); they share the same second character, but are differentiated by the first term, which is “cotton” for sheep and “hill” for goat.

The trouble comes when the character for the animal is used as a qualifier with another character as it does for 羊年 (yángnián), which is either Year of the Goat or Year of the Sheep (yet to be decided). Since this compound word follows the two-character rule, the qualifier for the second character (“year”) does not have a qualifier of its own, leaving it up for interpretation.

If foreigners just didn’t ask so many questions, this wouldn’t be a problem. And yet, the Manchester Evening Report couldn’t resist:

This month, do we welcome the Year of the Ram, or Year of the Sheep? Or could it be the Year of the Goat?

Asking this question is to imbue either a sheep or a goat with great cultural value, causing disharmony where there once was none. Leaving the matter open for more dissension, folklorist Fang Binggui says the answer depends upon where you live:

Each area (of China) has its own version that is considered to be that animal of the zodiac. Simply put, the north considers this to be the sheep, and the south considers this to be the goat.

With a north-south cultural war looming, Nantong Chinese Communist Party School professor Huang Yang tries to smooth out the divide by saying both sheep and goats have appeared in oracle bone scriptures, thus having equal importance in Chinese history. However, Huang does provide a definite answer:

…if we interpret the Chinese zodiac using the culture of the Han (the majority ethnic group), it’s more likely for the animal in question to be a sheep than a goat because the Han have raised more sheep in more areas (of the country).

There are 56 ethnic minorities in China, each raising sheep to various extents.

In order to answer an English speaker, Chinese need to decide for themselves which one it is. However, netizen comments show us that many aren’t happy at having been asked the question in the first place (please keep in mind they’re writing in Chinese, not English):

Isn’t this subject not worth talking about? Does this mean we have to figure out whether is is Year of the Ox or Year of the Water Buffalo? Year of the Dog is even better, (how about) husky? Samoyed? Country dog? Bull terrier? Does the Year of the Chicken refer to the rooster or the hen?

Does the Year of the Rat refer to a mouse or a hamster? Does the Year of the Ox refer to a water buffalo or a cow? Is the Year of the Tiger referring to a North-Eastern tiger or a South China tiger? Is the Year of the Rabbit referring to a white rabbit or a black rabbit? Is the Year of the Snake referring to a python or a piebald snake? Is the Year of the Horse referring to a Mongolian horse or a Hequ (Shanxi) horse? Is the Year of the Monkey referring to a macaque or a lazy dog? Is the Year of the dog referring to a husky or a golden retriever? I just have this to say: give it a rest.

Or, you can can solve this problem by using neither “sheep” or “goat”, but a pinyin-variant of “Chinglish”:

This should be added as a new entry to their Oxford dictionary. For us it’s not Year of the Ram, nor Year of the Goat. It’s ‘Yang Nian’.

The Chinese people send their regards online, and suggest you call it ‘Year of the Yang’ (Yang Year)~~~

And then here are some other perspectives:

They are all sheep/goat. Is there any difference between these animals?

Just as long as it’s not the goat in ‘scapegoat’ 

So while English-speakers want an answer for clarity, Chinese speakers want an answer for meaning. With two separate cultures, trying to find one word that can serve the same purpose in two different languages may be a bit of a stretch.

As well, we should consider the English connotations that are associated with each animal. Although 鼠 (shǔ) can refer to “mouse” or “rat” in Chinese, we should reconsider calling it the “Year of the Rat” as it’s come to be known. The latter reminds us of pestilence and New York sewers rather than a cute, furry rodent who just wants a piece of cheese.

For this reason, we’d humbly like to give our suggestion for the name of the new lunar year: the Year of the Ram. “Ram” symbolizes strength, and is an animal of such ferocity that it became a verb. It seems to be a popular way of describing this lunar cycle, as seen by other uses online.

Whatever we decide, perhaps we should keep the questions to a minimum, after this.

Charles Liu

The Nanfang's Senior Editor