This year in the Chinese Lunisolar tradition the Lunar New Year, The Year Of The Goat, begins on Thursday, February 19th. Kung Hei Fat Choy! The traditional blessing spoken on that day essentially means, “Congratulations and may you prosper in the coming year!”

The New Year is celebrated with Lion Dancers and fireworks, family gatherings and meals, the giving of gifts in red envelopes and putting up decorative banners of chunlián, a poetic couplet that expresses hopeful thoughts for the new year. On one side of the door a banner may read, Winter has gone, on the mountain clear water sparkles, on the other, Spring comes, a bird sings amid fragrant flowers. Often while the phrases work in harmony, the characters from which they are formed create antithesis.

In a parallel to the Western Zodiac tradition, the Chinese tradition follows a 12 year cycle, with each year having an animal symbol. The animals of the Chinese tradition are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

Unlike the Western Zodiac, these animals are not associated with constellations; traditionally the Chinese sky is divided into 5 great palaces, with 28 mansions, ruled over by the Emperor of Heaven and his Celestial Court. Events in Heaven parallel those on Earth, and these regions have their own symbolic creatures and their own complex mythology. First mentioned in the ancient book of divination, the Book Of Changes or I Ching, the four directions of the compass and the four seasons are ruled over by their own mystical animals, the Blue Dragon for east and spring, the Red Phoenix for south and summer, the White Tiger for west and autumn, and the Black Tortoise for north and winter.

Like the Western Zodiac, the animals of the Chinese cycle of years imbue particular traits on those born under their auspices. A person born in the year of the Goat, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003 and 2015 will be gentle, serene, creative, amicable, persevering, they have a tendency, like their totem spirit, to be at home in groups, but never seek the centre of attention. They are at home in their thoughts. While they enjoy spending on fashions and the finer things, they do so out of pleasure, not elitism or snobbery.

You may have noticed the Google Doodle, the variations on the art for the Google logo that appears on the Google homepage which celebrates various cultural and holiday events, for The Chinese Year Of The Goat features an animation of a fluffy, curly horned, creature, butting its head on a tree, with lanterns sparking fireworks. Have Google goofed, have they bungled their doodle, with this picture of a Ram instead of Goat? Some linguists have pointed out that the Chinese Zodiac character that means Goat, yáng ( 羊 ) also means Ram, and also means Sheep. So which is it?

Shanyáng, , which means goat, is comprised of two characters, shan ( 山 ), which means mountain, and yáng ( 羊 ), which means sheep. So a mountain sheep is a goat. However, as is common with many words, when shanyáng is shortened to yáng, to mean goat, out of context it can be read as sheep, but actually it still means goat.

In this case it seems inauspicious for Google, as the old Chinese proverb has it, 順手牽羊/顺手牵羊, while one must always take the opportunity to pilfer a goat, (Shùn shǒu qiān yáng), one should perhaps make sure that one has not got the ram by the horns.



8 Responses

  1. Jasmine

    It’s interesting you say it will be the year of the goat. I was in London’s China Town earlier this week and all the signs say 2015 is the year of the sheep. There was an article in my paper today saying that lots of Chinese expectant mothers have asked for their babies to be induced so that they are not born in the year of the sheep because people born that year are meek and docile.

  2. C S Hughes

    My reading says it is not quite correct to call it the Year Of The Sheep, and that while The Goat may be calm, they also have many other qualities; determination, creativity, serenity. I think it is an error to read the contemplative as docile.

    • Jasmine

      If my newspaper article is correct, then a lot of Chinese mothers appear not to want their off-spring to be Sheep or Goats so there must be some characteristic they do not wish their children to have. I have a photograph of the signs in London – they definitely say Sheep – there’s not a Goat in sight LOL I wonder if the characters for the animals are similar or ambiguous.

      • Olga Hughes

        Yes the yáng symbol can mean either sheep, ram or goat. Perhaps they’re afraid of horns all round?

  3. Olga Hughes

    Well I don’t think sheep are particularly meek either. I have met both very pleasant sheep and goats 🙂

  4. Jasmine

    I wonder what might be the basis for the saying ‘separating the sheep from the goats’ – it implies a significant difference, but perhaps it is more subtle than that and like the Chinese, perhaps the originators saw only small differences.

  5. mel

    As such, things can get lost in translation. Goat, Ram or Sheep-same difference. All wonderful creatures I say.

  6. C S Hughes

    Luckily the Christian parable, of separating the sheep from the goats, the kind and generous from the wicked and selfish, the one group to sit in heaven, the other condemned to to eternal punishment, doesn’t apply.


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