Year of the Goat vs. the Sheep

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Happy Year of the Goat! Or sheep? When you choose, it says more about you than biology or Chinese history.

(The first version of this story went out on Feb 6th to paid subscribers – before the recent exhortations by the CE to be more like sheep.)

Sheep v. Goat

Forget constitutional reform (for a moment). The debate of the week – for English speakers – iis Sheep v. Goat! it seems there is some confusion on what the new year is. One friend, in the classic -Western-Chinese marriage combo, said he and his wife were having their biggest row of the year over it. The launch party at Alibi, Langham Hotel’s new restaurant, was riven! So what is it?

The problem seems to spring from the fact that historical China didn’t have Western wool-producing, often Biblically mentioned, sheep. They have one word, yang (羊). Goats are mountain goats, shan yang (山羊) and sheep are mian yang (綿羊). Various linguistic impresarios have noted it could be better translated as Year of the Ram (sheep and goat covered), and ‘who cares?’ as both are kosher. Modern commercial design people adorning greeting cards and shopping malls often pick the cuddlier sheep over the cantankerous goat.

It’s Goat

One historian looked to the Ching Dynasty heads ‘liberated’ from the Summer Palace. Clearly goat.


Find the yang.

The choice in English by various bodies is enlightening. The finance industry comes down heavy for the Goat. CLSA’s legendary feng shui report: Goat. CNBC: Goat. SCMP: Goat.

In Hong Kong, John Tsang recognises the issue in English. The government fudges with Ram in many places. Sage. This listener has heard English RTHK’s radio PSAs going with ‘Year of the Sheep’. But it’s mostly Ram coming out of local government.

The Singaporean government and Monetary Authority have gone Goat, as has their tourist attaction, the Flower Garden (see pictures). Xinhua (China’s official voice): Goat.

Who’s on sheep?

‘Sheep’ seems to have been introduced as poor translations by unofficial sources that place highly in Google. It’s been picked up here and there just enough to generate confusion, abetted by the aforementioned commercial designers. Official Chinese country sources consistently go with Ram or Goat.

Many Japanese embassy websites in English speaking countries (UK, USA) include ‘Sheep’. Not to draw too many inferences of what the interpretation of that means about national characters, goats are certainly perceived (in the West) as independent-minded, stubborn, omnivorous animals not shy about butting heads. It would certainly seem to match the description of Hong Kongers.


Goats, beware the wolf

In China, the hugely popular and feisty cartoon character of 羊羊 is the one that constantly faces the depredations of the wolf (sample here). It seems there may be a rich vein of political satire, vis a vis the CE, to mine here – watch for it this year.

And clearly the known committed Christians in the senior reaches of Hong Kong government didn’t have a say, unless they pushed the shift from Goat (sued in 2003) to Ram as a compromise.  Here’s what the New Testament had to say about goats v sheeps. Sheeps good!  Goats bad!


But the final word from the worlds of government, finance and the character of the Hong Kong people: Goat. Mehhhh. Not “Baaaaaa”.

Unless your wife says sheep – it’s not worth a row over it!