Is it the Year of the Sheep, Ram or Goat?

Is it the Year of the Sheep, Ram or Goat?

Chinese New Year is quickly descending upon us. Now living back in the UK, I have to admit that I do miss the buzz that surrounds this time of year in China, as the floating population head back home for the holidays and the constant bombardment of fireworks makes falling asleep an impossibility.

I was asked recently if I could clarify whether the upcoming zodiac animal was a sheep, goat or ram. I asked my Chinese teacher who said that it can be any of the animals and that people in China don’t differentiate – it’s simply 羊年. However, an article has circulated recently on Chinese social media and it seems that Chinese netizens are laughing at Western media’s indecision on the matter. It looks like it might be time for us to come to a consensus…

Firstly, let’s take a look at the vocabulary: in Chinese, goat is 山羊,sheep is 绵羊 and ram is 公羊. As you can see, the common qualifier amongst the animals is 羊 and the problems lies that in English, we just don’t have one. It’s true that in China, you will find each of the three animals pictured in Chinese New Year materials, so in that respect you could argue that the indecision doesn’t rest solely on our shoulders. Here are some of my favourite comments on Chinese social media about the story:

朱文杰设计师:”Other people can’t tell which ‘yang’ it is, the New York times can’t even tell the difference between a sheep and an ox!”

 方冰moon: “If so, is it field mouse or house mouse in the year of mouse; buffalo or yak in the year of ox; South China tiger or Manchurian tiger in the year of tiger; wool rabbit or snow hare in the year of rabbit; Chinese dragon or dinosaur in the year of dragon; cobra or boa in the year of snake?”

We can find general classifiers for other zodiac animals, such as rooster for 鸡 and ox for 牛, but how do we get around this problem when there is simply no direct translation for 羊年 into English? I for one am totally confused. Hold that thought, what if we introduce antelope 羚羊 into the equation… Aiyou!

Gregory practicing Chinese New Year characters
My little brother, Gregory, learning how to write the character 羊 in his Mandarin lesson

On the whole, the Year of the Sheep/Ram/Goat/Antelope is seen as one of the least desirable of the twelve zodiac signs, as the animals are seen as followers rather than leaders. It’s also likely the reason that pictures of rams 公羊 are often used in China to represent the year – as they are seen as stronger, more powerful animals.

Some scholars have commented that the elaborate nature of each of the names in English is likely due to the long tradition that we have in the UK of raising these animals. That hasn’t stopped media agencies sending their best talent off on missions to uncover the truth of which animal should be used to represent the year (and often coming back even more confused than when they set off!).

I propose we simply face up to the fact that 羊 has been lost in translation, like a single sheep separated from its herd. How about we settle for the ‘Year of the Yang’?

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