It’s not a sheep or a ram – it’s the year of the goat, says leading Chinese linguist
Twelve animals have been used to mark the year by Chinese commoners since the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD). It was an attempt to simplify the complicated sexagenary cycle, also known as the stems-and-branches, a calendar system which has been used in China for more than 2,000 years.
The correct translation of the animal zodiac this year has caused confusion among English speakers. The Chinese word yang in oracle bone script – the ancient characters found on bones used for divination in the Bronze Age – looks like an animal with two horns and a pointy face, yet it can be interpreted as goat, sheep or ram in English.
Although sheep have a long history in Chinese society, Professor Ho Che-wah, head of the Department of Chinese language and literature at Chinese University, said food culture pointed to the goat as the most likely animal to have been included in the zodiac from its inception.
“In ancient China, people ate six types of animals – horse, cow, goat, pig, dog and chicken. Goat is therefore included in the zodiac too,” Ho said.
Goat also has a higher status among the six animals in Chinese society. In the past, only rich people and the aristocracy could eat them.
Sheep bones were found in the relics of Yangshao culture, which flourished along the Yellow River between 5000BC and 3000BC. Yet, sheep at that time were used to provide wool and weren’t eaten, Ho said.
“For food, people mostly ate goats [instead of sheep],” he said.
A Chinese historian meanwhile, told Xinhua that goat was more likely to be in the zodiac than sheep as it was popularly bred among Han Chinese.
Ho, who is also a scholar of Chinese ancient texts, said that positive words were historically associated with goats.
“The word ‘beautiful’ in oracle bone script looks like a person with head ornaments made with goat horns,” he said.
The Chinese word for “envy” originally referred to a person salivating over a goat, he added.
The goat is also well respected in Chinese culture.
Han dynasty scholar Dong Zhongshu described three virtues that people should learn from goats: the goat doesn’t hurt people with its horn; it never cries or howls; and its kids always bow down on front legs when drinking milk, symbolising filial piety.
The Chinese depiction of the goat echoes the Christian depiction of sheep. The Bible for example, describes Jesus as a lamb before he was crucified.
The confusion over translation, however, has not done much harm to festive celebrations. Decorations of sheep and symbols of goats have been seen around the city. After all, they are all referred to as yang in Chinese.
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