It’s not a sheep or a ram - it's the year of the goat, says leading Chinese linguist

Chinese character leaves it unclear whether we're entering Year of the Goat, Ram or Sheep

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 1:15pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 4:44pm

It's all much ado about mutton. As the Year of the Horse races to the finish line and the city readies itself for the Lunar New Year tomorrow, there's one woolly debate that's got everyone bleating: is it the Year of the Goat, Sheep or Ram?

The confusion centres on the interpretation of the Chinese character yang, which can be translated to mean goat, sheep or ram in English.

But don't feel too sheepish if you've got it wrong, as it seems no one can quite agree.

Ocean Park has opted for Year of the Goat, as did the MTR Corporation, which released a set of commemorative tickets that feature - confusingly - a traditional painting from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) called Sheep and Goat.

Over in West Kowloon, the Elements shopping centre has chosen the goat, placing large knitted goat figures around the mall as part of its Lunar New Year decorations.

Nearby, the five-star Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui is welcoming in the Year of the Ram, as is Hongkong Post, which last month gave its stamp of approval to the decision by releasing a special collectors' series of stamps featuring colourful rams.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Tourism Board has ditched the goat and ram and decided to think outside the box, or sheep pen in this case, deeming it the Year of the Sheep.

The tourism body has not one but two sheep for its float in tomorrow night's Lunar New Year parade.

However, this has caused further confusion, as one character appears to be male with blue wool and the other is female with pink wool, a dress and heels, meaning it could also be the Year of the Ram or Year of the Ewe.

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A tourism board spokeswoman said sheep, ram and goat were all acceptable terms for describing this lunar year as the Chinese character could refer to any of the three animals.

Overseas, the London branch of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office held Year of the Ram celebrations in Finland and in Norway.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying preferred the Year of the Sheep theme when he hosted a Lunar New Year party at Government House earlier this month.

For one Chinese linguist, the confusion stems from ancient times, when the Chinese zodiac, based on a 12-year cycle, was first introduced during the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD).

The Chinese word yang in oracle-bone script - the ancient characters found on bones used for divination in the Bronze Age - looked like an animal with two horns and a pointy face, said Professor Ho Che-wah, head of the department of Chinese literature at Chinese University.

But the character could be translated to goat, sheep or ram in English.

Ho said that while sheep had a long history in Chinese society, the country's culinary past suggested the goat as the most likely animal to have been included in the zodiac.

"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.

Goats also had a higher status among the six animals in Chinese society, as in the past, only rich people and the aristocracy could afford to eat them.

The Chinese word for "envy" originally referred to a person salivating over a goat, Ho added.