Lunar New Year 2015: Is it the year of the goat or the sheep?

Linguistic and cultural differences have Western citizens scratching their heads about the true meaning of this year’s zodiac symbol.

Andy Wong/AP Photo/File
In this Feb. 12 photo, toys are displayed for sale for Lunar New Year decorations in Beijing, China. The Chinese symbol representing the new year's zodiacal creature has led to a debate in the West about whether the animal is supposed to be a sheep or a goat.

The Lunar New Year is well underway for countries all across Asia.

Hundreds of millions of people are heading to China in what the BBC has called “the world’s biggest annual human migration.” Chinese officials expect about 3 billion passenger trips to be made during the 40-day travel period known as “Chunyun,” or the Spring Festival Transport, which begins Feb. 18, according to China Daily.

And China’s two biggest Internet businesses, Alibaba and Tencent, which owns popular messaging app WeChat, are in a major contest over who can get more people to exchange virtual “hongbao” – the little red envelopes traditionally used to gift money to friends and family during the festival.

Yet despite the mind-blowing facts, figures, and economic implications of this cosmic event, the question puzzling people in the West is this: Is 2015 the year of the goat or the year of the sheep?

“Few ordinary Chinese are troubled by the sheep-goat distinction,” according to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency. “However, the ambiguity has whipped up discussion in the West.”

In science, the differences are pretty pronounced: Sheep – flock-oriented, grazing animals – have 54 chromosomes, while goats – independent creatures that prefer leaves, shrubs, and vines higher off the ground – have 60. In case there’s no DNA at hand, one quick way to tell them apart is to look at their tails: Sheep’s tend to hang down while goats hold theirs up.

The trouble with the zodiac creature comes from a linguistic and cultural gap.

Mandarin, unlike English, is a language driven by symbols, not letters. The Mandarin word for the eighth animal in the 12-creature Chinese zodiac cycle is “yáng” (羊), defined in major Chinese-English dictionaries as “sheep.” 

Screen grab from Google.

But when used with qualifiers, the same symbol can refer to other members of the Caprinae subfamily, to which belong “any such hoofed animal that eats grass and bleats,” as The New York Times puts it.

For instance, when the word “shān” (山), which alone means “mountain,” is used together with “yáng,” the resulting word, “shānyáng” (山羊) translates into “goat.”

“Miányáng” (绵羊), which also means “sheep,” pairs the symbol for “cotton” with yáng. “Gōngyáng” (公羊), which uses the symbol for “public,” translates into “ram.”

Screen grab from Google.

There are other considerations.

If it’s a question of which came first, for instance, the sheep wins: It appears the Chinese started farming the fluffy animals at least 2,000 years before they did goats, according to a Xinhua article.

Yet the same story notes that China today is home to about 195 million goats, nearly a quarter of the world’s goat population. (Sheep in China number about 187 million, or about 15 percent of all the world's sheep, according Xinhua.)

And it seems that goats enjoyed a higher status in ancient China than sheep, as only the wealthy and those in the aristocracy could afford to eat goat meat, Professor Ho Che-wah, head of the department of Chinese literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post.

Social media also provides a supporting opinion: #YearoftheGoat, not sheep, is what’s trending on Twitter.

While the Western world struggles to make heads or tails of the sheep-goat conundrum, those actually celebrating the New Year seem as though they couldn't care less.

“I’ve never thought about that question before,” Chen Xufeng, a Beijing office clerk, told Xinhua. “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.”

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