Happy Year of the Ruminant.
Ouch. There’s not much ring to that.
On Feb. 19, more than 1 billion people across Asia will celebrate the new year. In China, the annual migration of 700 million people for this holiday is so huge that it’s been called “the largest annual movement of humans in the world.”
But while there’s broad agreement on what animal other years honor — we just finished with the year of the horse, for example — it’s not clear exactly what creature this new year is the year of. The candidates are ram, sheep or goat, but there’s no consensus on a winner.
The confusion relates to the Chinese character yang:
The exact meaning of the phrase is hard to pin down. Unhelpful English translation: “horned animal.”
The South China Morning Post had a helpful rundown of who is going with what. Hong Kong’s postal service, for example, chose ram. The Hong Kong Tourism Board endorsed sheep — though this may be a bad PR move. According to the BBC, the sheep is “one of the least desirable animals of the Chinese zodiac.” The problem: “It is seen as a docile, weak follower rather than as a strong leader.”
Indeed, some Chinese families try to avoid having children in sheep years.
“It’s considered to be burdened by bad luck,” anthropologist Zhao Xudong told Xinhuanet. “… All too often, when people confront failures, they attribute it to animal years. But there is no scientific evidence to prove this.”
One toy shop owner didn’t mind the anti-sheep innuendo — though he had an obvious conflict of interest.
“It’s the sheep year, so it’s auspicious to buy sheep toys now,” Guo Yonghua told Xinhuanet.
One of Guo’s customers was ready.
“I prefer to call it the sheep, because it’s cuter,” Li Hongye said.
Though China is swimming in sheep — 187 million, or 15 percent of the world’s population by Xinhuanet‘s count — one academic put his money on the Year of the Goat. After all, China has more than 195 million goats — that’s one of every four on Earth.
“In ancient China, people ate six types of animals — horse, cow, goat, pig, dog and chicken,” Ho Che-wah, head of the department of Chinese literature at Chinese University, told the Morning Post. “Goat is therefore included in the zodiac, too.”
But as Western dualists twisted themselves into philosophical contortions over what their local Chinese food restaurant’s placemats should say, one thing was clear: In Asia, people ringing in the new year do not care whether the ram, sheep or goat can lay claim to the 365 days ahead.
“I’ve never thought about that question before,” Chen Xufeng, an office clerk in Beijing, told Xinhua, as the New York Times reported. “Do we have to tell them apart? I’ve seen more goats in zodiac images, but I prefer to buy a sheep mascot, as sheep are more fluffy and lovely.”
As another scholar pointed out, the translation is the translators’ problem.
“This is ridiculous,” said Zhao Shu, a folklore expert at the Beijing Institute of Culture and History. “Goat and sheep are different in French and English, but what’s that got to do with Chinese traditional culture?”
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the Chinese character for “horned animal” as 昜.