Year of the… Goat?

As conflicting well-wishes reach in-boxes across the world, we ask Professor Colin Mackerras - goat, sheep or ram?
Article by Emeritus Professor Colin Mackerras AO
from the Griffith Asia Institute

The coming year in the Chinese zodiac and East Asian cultures is the ‘year of the羊’, pronounced yang in standard Chinese. The word can mean ‘sheep’, ‘goat’ or even other similar horned animals, like ‘gazelle’. If we want to be specific, a goat is a ‘mountain yang‘ (shanyang), while a sheep is sometimes called a ‘cotton yang‘ (mianyang). In the Chinese zodiac, the reference is usually to the male, never the female, but general is possible. We could correctly refer to the ‘year of the ram’, but we wouldn’t say ‘the year of the ewe’.

I think there are three translations of yangnian that are quite correct: ‘the year of the sheep’, ‘the year of the ram’ and ‘the year of the goat’. But there are complexities for each of them. Let’s look at them one by one.

‘The year of the sheep’
The Japanese also use the Chinese zodiac. They translated the word yang in this connection as hitsuji, which means ‘sheep’. They do not use yagi, which means goat. In China, there are many sheep, but they are mainly in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. For various reasons, sheep are important in Mongolian, Uighur, Kazak and other cultures in China, but not in the culture of the numerically dominant Han Chinese. We might also argue that in Australia, the sheep is an extremely important animal culturally and economically, so what’s wrong with ‘the year of the sheep’?

‘The year of the ram’
This is perfectly normal in Chinese and Japanese cultures, and it’s an acceptable usage elsewhere. One could argue that in these days of feminism, we shouldn’t use the male form when the female could also be included. Maybe ‘the year of the ram’ is less generally inclusive, though it’s perfectly correct. After all, the Chinese rarely talk of ‘the year of the stallion’ in preference to ‘the year of the horse’. I’ve never seen ‘the year of the ewe’ or ‘the year of the mare’, so we can avoid those.

‘The year of the goat’
The Vietnamese, who also use the Chinese zodiac, have identified the Chinese animal yang as definitely ‘the goat’ not ‘the sheep’, so they’ve taken the path opposite path to the Japanese. And, except for the far west and Inner Mongolia, the goat is much more normal in China than is the sheep. The Han Chinese, who are numerically and culturally by far the dominant ethnic group in China, would find it easier to identify culturally with the goat than the sheep.

So where does this get us? All three usages are correct, but there are unexpected complexities. My preference is ‘the year of the sheep’ for three main reasons. Firstly, it seems to be more commonly used nowadays. Secondly, this is after all Australia where ‘the year of the sheep’ resonates much better than ‘the year of the goat’. Thirdly, we live in an age of inclusiveness, so although ‘the year of the ram’ is fine, there’s no need to emphasize the male in preference to the general and inclusive form.

So I go for ‘the year of the sheep’



(If you would like to comment on this article please email [email protected])

Sally Purbrick-Illek, Tourism Confucius Institute

I like the term, “Happy Ewe Year!”

Associate Professor David Schak, Griffith Asia Institute

Colin’s piece is very nice, but I would go for either goat or ram–not to be contrary, mind you, but for good reasons. The Chinese character is, as Colin notes, ambiguous. However, goats are far more common in China than sheep (and goat hot pot on a cold night is wonderful!). But goat and sheep in English have some negative connotations. A nation of sheep–HK’s CEO, CY Leong has made this suggestion to the people there, but I don’t think he’s sheep dog enough to get them to follow. Goat–a silly old goat? or the ‘wet and salty’ goat; ‘wet and salty’ in Cantonese is what dirty old men are. And of course, the Romans thought the same of goats.

So ram wins out. Imagine if Dodge had called its ute Dodge Sheep or Dodge Goat. Bad marketing decision.

So Ram it must be.


Stuart from Adelaide Australia

That was an amazing article that made me think in different ways about how the cultural significance of word choices can sometimes go right past me, but occasionally lets me see how our environments tend to shape our thinking.

Similarly, I found an article ( which points out the dialect-specific pronunciations of 恭喜發財 that again, we don’t seem to come across much in Australia but are an every day part of life in the Philippines.