“Let the foreigners figure it out”

Painting by Zhao Mengfu. Public domain.

Painting by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322 CE). Public domain.

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 isn’t any actually more specific than .

Four Yang Square Zun, a Shang Dynasty vase. Creative Commons.

Four Yang Square Zun. Creative Commons.

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.

Versions of on oracle bone inscriptions. Source: Chinese Etymology.

Versions of yang in oracle bone inscriptions. Source: chineseetymology.org via Quartz.

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.”

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4 responses to ““Let the foreigners figure it out”

  • aediculaantinoi

    With the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America’s interpretation, it’s the Year of the Sheep, and the ema and so forth they are offering go with that interpretation. As I have the ema and a few other such items from there on my home Shinto shrine, I guess that’s the default for my own situation.

    I have often wondered if there is a twelve-animal cycle with Tibetan culture as well, and if so, if the animal corresponding to sheep/ram/goat is instead the yak. The Year of the Yak sounds fun, I think. 😉

    • Heathen Chinese

      Yeah, from what I’ve seen, sheep imagery has prevailed over goat imagery in most places, for whatever reason.

      The Rabten Buddhist Monasteries website has a calendar for practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. The website says that “Tibetan astrology is a combination of Buddhist astrology from Kalachakra-tantra, Hindu astrology from Shiva-Tantra and ancient Chinese astrology.”

      It looks like they do use the twelve-animal zodiac, but the calendar just says “Wood-Sheep.” No yaks, I’m afraid. 😦

      Not to be too pedantic about something that’s purely hypothetical anyways, but aren’t yaks more closely related to oxen than to sheep/goats?

      • aediculaantinoi

        I’m sure you’re right; but, given that Tibetans do have yaks as a pretty common domestic animal, and they use them for similar purposes that sheep (and goats!) are used in other cultures, it just seemed “cooler” in my mind that they’d have yaks instead of sheep. So much for that thought! 😉

  • uloboridae

    It’s the year of the woolies.

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