Happy Chinese New Year: Is it the Year of the Goat, Sheep, or Ram?
Chinese New Year comes on February 19 this year. Usually we hear about fun festivities and feasts, but apparently it has generated a debate this year. There is a spirited discussion among the Western media about how to translate the word "YANG," the Chinese word that describes the entire category of animals that includes sheep, goats, rams, and more.
The problem for Western reporters is in how to translate the "Year of Yang"— Will it be the Year of the Sheep, Year of the Goat, or even Year of the Ram? The news even reached China and generated a buzz there.
Chinese New Year, also referred to as Lunar New Year, is based on the ancient calendar developed in the old agrarian culture. It is celebrated not just in China but also globally wherever there are people of Chinese heritage. This year is actually the year 4713 according to the ancient calendar, but most people have more fun talking about the Chinese zodiac that cycles with 12 animals (of which the Chinese dragon is a mythical creature) and refers to the new year as the "Year of Sheep" or "Year of Goat."
In the Chinese language, there is just one word, yang 羊, to refer to all these similar types of animals. When I learned English, I realized English was a lot harder than Chinese when it comes to yang. For the Chinese language, we simply add another character to make 綿羊 for sheep, 山羊 for goat, etc. When we see a word-phrase that we don't recognize, if it contains 羊, we can at least guess it's in a similar animal category. However, in English, I had to learn about sheep, goat, ewe, lamb, mutton, gazelle, ram, and more, and you can't really guess what the word means just by looking at it.
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The whole debate about sheep or goat probably started with the Birmingham News when it ran this headline: Chinese New Year in Birmingham: Is it the Year of the Goat, Sheep or Ram?
After more news and TV reporters started discussing this topic, the New York Daily News joined the fray with this fun headline: Lunar New Year celebrations to welcome year of 'any ruminant horned animal'.
Once this news reached China and got reported by Chinese media, Chinese netizens have joined the debate too, although most are expressing surprise that there isn't a word like cats, dogs, and horses, to describe these sheep or goat-related animals. Some like the fluffy white sheep, while others prefer goats as they aren't as docile as sheep.
One of the best childhood memories I have growing up in Taiwan is that we students would get a month-long winter vacation in conjunction with the Lunar Near Year. Of course, I was a little bewildered at the time about why we celebrated two new year holidays, but it wasn't really a concern. What I cared about was getting my red envelopes of money gifts from adults, eating lots and lots of food, and even playing dice, which was normally forbidden except during the Lunar New Year holidays. The Year of Sheep or Goat never crossed my mind as something I'd worry about, ever.
Now, I do thank the intrepid investigative journalist from CNN who tracked down a Hong Kong professor of Chinese mythology who explained that "goat" is probably the more "correct" word, not that sheep is wrong, by looking at how the Chinese hieroglyphics developed and at the particular animals that were herded in central China in ancient times. Having learned more about my own heritage, I'm now leaning towards using "Year of Goat."
What do you think? Does it really matter? The word "Yang" carries auspicious meaning in Chinese. Therefore:
Happy Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year! Happy Year of the Goat-Sheep!