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A horny question

Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 05:50
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IS THIS the Year of the Goat, Sheep, or Ram? Of all the creatures in the Chinese zodiac, the goat seems to be the most identity-challenged - and that's saying something, since dragons don't even exist.

Take hongbao designs, for example. While most sport the gangly frame of the traditional mountain goat, more than a few are featuring curly-horned rams and fluffy puffs of sheep.

Sheep are also bleating out (I mean beating out) goats when it comes to marketing paraphernalia, since their cotton candy fleece and placid expressions are deemed far more appealing. When goats do make an appearance, however, they're often sprinkled with a liberal dose of cuteness.

Some of the highlights include the National Heritage Board's Bukit Chandu hongbaos, which have a cartoon goat decked out in a World War II Malay Regiment uniform. Credit Suisse's red packets are also worth a mention; they feature a goat's head on a sheep's body that is (wait for it) furry to the touch.

One church downtown even has a Chinese New Year-themed poster, complete with a welcoming, smiling, open-armed sheep that asks: "Which lamb do you celebrate?"

Amid all the confusion, I've taken an interest (my colleagues would call it an obsession actually) with pinning down the "correct" caprinae creature. After all, goats and sheep belong to entirely different species, and rams are simply uncastrated male sheep.

My research has proffered the following four points:

  • Because the Chinese zodiac first appeared after the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046BC) - an era when people did not differentiate between sheep and goats - it is difficult to trace the origin of yang in the zodiac;
  • Written in Mandarin, the character yang could mean a mountain goat (shan yang), sheep (mian yang), ram (gongyang), or gazelle (ling yang). So any of these interpretations is technically not incorrect;
  • Still, the written character boasts a pair of horns that more closely resembles a goat's than a sheep's; and
  • Historically, neither gazelles nor sheep were commonly found in China. In contrast, bearded goats were popular as farm animals among Han Chinese.

In the absence of an official body to lay the matter to rest once and for all (oh, where are you, Chinese zodiac gods?), I'm inclined to believe that this is the Year of the Goat.

It's interesting, though, to see how different cultures and religions have come to view goats, and how these associations have morphed over time (for better or for worse).

For instance, Chinese geomancers still favour goats over sheep; the latter are perceived as too docile, while horns are traditionally seen as a mark of strength.

In the Bible, however, goats suffer a sorry fate. Sheep go to heaven while goats go to hell, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Sheep are saved for their compassion and faith, while goats are banished to eternal damnation to pay for their selfish and ungodly ways. Ouch.

A parable, yes, but one of instruction nonetheless.

As Chinese New Year gets increasingly anglicised each year, it's clear that sheep and lambs - with their huggable fleece and sweet little faces - are gaining in popularity. Already, shop owners in Chinatown are capitalising on shifting tastes, and are offering a plethora of sheep-themed merchandise to a younger generation of customers.

But at the end of the day, does any of this even make a difference? Do people care about a definitive answer to the big yang theory?

Meh.

READ MORE: Economists paint dismal picture for this year

INFOGRAPHICS: Goat years

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