A writer named Nikhil Sonnad recently wrote an interesting article entitled “Happy lunar new year! But is it the year of the sheep or something else?” which deals with the difficulties of figuring out whether the animal (羊, yáng) associated with the current lunar year is a sheep or a goat (or a ram, though there’s actually nothing in the word 羊 to indicate the animal’s sex).
It’s a problem that only really comes to the forefront in translation, but the word 羊 is indeed ambiguous with regards to this question. However, Sonnad notes that “The Chinese-speaking world does seem to think less of the effort to make a distinction,” and indeed have mocked Westerners for their consternation:
The article mentioned above ridiculed the deployment of “so-called China experts” who were unable to resolve the issue.
Another article claims that “the Chinese Year of the Yang is driving the English-language media crazy.” […]
A Taiwanese friend told me that it refers to “yang in general.”
One user on microblogging service Sina Weibo said, “I believe yang is just a common term. Whether it means ‘goat’ or ‘sheep,’ let the foreigners figure it out.”
Another: “Whether it’s ram, goat, or sheep, everyone have a brilliant, prosperous, and joyful new year.”
In the Chinese sexagenary cycle, the year is actually called 乙未 (the first character is one of two Heavenly Stems which signify that the element of the year is Wood), but 未 isn’t any actually more specific than 羊.
There’s a Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 to 1046 BCE) bronze vessel decorated with four 羊 called the Four Yang Square Zun, but the horned creatures depicted could also be seen as either sheep or goats.
Sonnad comments that the one thing that can be said without doubt is that “Looking at the character’s history, it’s at least clear that it has always referred to an animal with horns. The earliest instances of yang have been passed down to us in the form of oracle bone inscriptions.” So there’s another shred of certainty: whatever 羊 refers to, they’ve been around in China for a long time.
Sonnad’s article begins with a wry comparison with Matthew 25:31-2: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
As the Sina Weibo user said, “Let the foreigners figure it out.”