Whatever Floats Your Goat: The 2015 Lunar New Year Animal Is Up For Debate

Feb 20, 2015
Originally published on February 19, 2016 9:23 am

Many East Asian cultures use zodiac animals to symbolize each New Year and predict a person's fortunes. But which animal represents 2015 is up for debate.

You may have seen goat, sheep or ram as the English translation for this year's animal according to the Chinese zodiac — yang, in Mandarin. All of them are correct, says Lala Zuo, a Chinese language and culture professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.

"I don't think there's a wrong translation," she says. "I think there are various ways of translation. It really depends on the context."

Some Chinese words are vague and not as specific as English words, so yang could refer to a goat, sheep or even a ram. But in ancient times, Zuo says, that Chinese character meant goat.

"I think goat is more commonly seen by people in China, both in the north and south," she says.

Not in Korea, though, according to Sang-Seok Yoon, a Korean language instructor at the University of Iowa.

"China is big and there are many different types of one animal, but Korea is small and the most prototypical image of yang for Korean people is sheep," he says.

The correct way to describe this Vietnamese New Year is the year of the goat — or mùi in Vietnamese, according to James Lap, who teaches the language at Columbia University.

"In Vietnam, there is no sheep or ram at all because the weather is so hot," Lap says.

Some cultures go beyond the goat-sheep divide and assign one of five elements borrowed from Chinese astrology and even a gender to a zodiac animal. All of these characteristics can, supposedly, predict what's to come in the New Year.

In Tibetan culture, this is the year of the female wood sheep, according to Tsering Shakya, who teaches Tibetan literature at the University of British Columbia.

"A female year tends to be much more sort of peaceful than say male," he says. "Male is aggressive, and female will be more calm."

The Mongolian zodiac also forecasts a peaceful new year under the blue female sheep. The sheep is culturally important in Mongolia, in part because they are better for the environment, says Myagmariin Saruul-Erdene, who teaches Mongolian at the Foreign Service Institute.

"When sheep eat grass, they leave the roots there," he explains. "But when the goats eat them, they just take everything, so next year, there'll be like no more grass."

As for 2016, next year will be the year of the monkey, or the ape, depending on whom you ask.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Lunar New Year starts today. Now, you might know this as Chinese New Year - easy thing to say, not quite accurate because many East Asian cultures use zodiac animals to symbolize the new year and predict a person's fortunes. Which animal represents 2015 is up for debate. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang helps us sort it all out.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: I walked through Manhattan's Chinatown on a quest to find the correct English word for yang, this year's Chinese zodiac animal. And when I stopped to talk to David Mak, he responded...

DAVID MAK: Are you Chinese?

WANG: I am Chinese.

MAK: You don't know the Chinese zodiac?

WANG: Mak lives in Chinatown, so I asked him to translate, and he said without hesitation...

MAK: The ram.

WANG: It's a ram?

MAK: Yeah.

WANG: Definitely the ram?

MAK: Yeah.

WANG: But then a few blocks over, I run into Connie Wong. How does she translate yang?

(Speaking Mandarin).

CONNIE WONG: Sheep. Yeah, sheep.

WANG: Across the street, Johnson Zhen of Brooklyn says he's seen both sheep and goat. But his preference is...

JOHNSON ZHEN: Sheep.

WANG: Sheep?

ZHEN: (Speaking Cantonese).

WANG: "Because," he says in Cantonese, "sheep are cuter and more cartoon-y." Down in Maryland, at the U.S. Naval Academy, Professor Lala Zuo told me all of them are correct.

LALA ZUO: I don't think there's a wrong translation. I think there's various ways of translation. It really depends on the context, then you can translate what is this.

WANG: Zuo teaches Chinese language and culture, and she says despite people's strong feelings about this, they don't have to sweat it. Some Chinese words are vague and not as specific as English words. So yang could refer to either a sheep, goat or even a ram. But in ancient times, Zuo says, that Chinese character meant goat.

ZUO: 'Cause I think goat is more commonly seen by people in China, both in the North and South.

WANG: Not in Korea though, says Sang-Seok Yoon, a Korean language instructor at the University of Iowa.

SANG-SEOK YOON: China is big, and there are many different types of one animal. But Korea is small and most prototypical image of yang for Korean people is sheep.

JAMES LAP: In Vietnam, there is no sheep or ram at all because the weather is so hot, all right? You don't have animal with the wool or - no, we don't.

WANG: Back in New York, James Lap, who teaches Vietnamese at Columbia University, told me the correct way to describe this Vietnamese New Year is the year of the goat.

LAP: Right, the year of the goat. That's what we say.

WANG: And what they say in Tibet is more specific, says Tsering Shakya. He teaches Tibetan literature at the University of British Columbia.

TSERING SHAKYA: In Tibet, it's the year of lug. It's a sheep. This year is the year of the sheep.

WANG: But Shakya says in Tibetan culture, you have to pay attention to which element is assigned to the year. This is the year of the wood sheep. The five elements borrowed from Chinese astrology, along with the zodiac animal, can supposedly predict what's to come in the new year. And there's a gender.

SHAKYA: The gender is female. Female year tend to be much more sort of peaceful than, say, male. Male is aggressive, and female will be more calm.

WANG: The Mongolian zodiac also forecasts a peaceful new year. Their animal is the blue female sheep. Myagmariin Saruul-Erdene, who teaches Mongolian at the Foreign Service Institute, says the sheep is culturally important.

MYAGMARIIN SARUUL-ERDENE: For many years, they preferred sheep over the goats. So, for example, Mongolians prefer mutton better than goat meat.

WANG: And the other reason?

SARUUL-ERDENE: When sheep eat grass, they leave the roots there. But when the goats eat them, they just take everything, so next year they will be, like, no more grass.

WANG: Next year's zodiac animal will be somewhat easier to figure out. 2016 will be the year of the monkey - or the ape, depending on who you ask. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.