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The Year of the Horned Ruminant

Happy Lunar New Year! In the 12-year Chinese zodiac, we’ve said goodbye to the year of the Horse, and now we are in the Year of the Sheep. Or is it the Year of the Goat? The word in Chinese is 羊 (yáng), which can either mean sheep or goat -or an antelope, for that matter. It’s not such a big deal in China, but English language news outlets are somewhat confused.

“I’ve never thought about that question before,” Chen Xufeng, an office clerk in Beijing, 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.”

The prevalent theory goes that because Han Chinese culture developed in regions where herders and goats prevailed, the zodiac talisman must be a goat. The animal is indeed common in traditional New Year art. But sheep have their proponents, and they have become more common in cutesy cartoonish decorations for the celebrations.

Zhao Shu, a folklore expert at the Beijing Institute of Culture and History, said in a telephone interview that the debate was silly. The creature in question arose as a general symbol of plenitude and good fortune, partly because the Chinese character yang shares roots with the one for auspiciousness, he said.

If English speakers are caught up on whether it is a sheep or a goat, that is their problem, Mr. Zhao added.

Metafilter has a roundup of more links about the question of the goat or the sheep.

(Image credit: Google Doodle)


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