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'Year of the Sheep' or 'Year of the Goat'?

Earliest version 2003 (Undated)

Under the Chinese system, 2003 is referred to as the Year of the Goat or the Year of the Sheep. Sometimes you'll find Year of the Ram, but never Year of the Ewe, Year of the Wether, Year of the Billy Goat or Year of the Nanny Goat -- obviously not dignified enough for the zodiac! So, which is correct, Year of the Sheep or Year of the Goat?

Officially, 2003 belongs to the sign 未 wèi. This is the eighth of the so-called twelve Earthly Branches 地支 dìzhī, part of a complex system of naming years, months, days, and hours developed by the ancient Chinese. Each Earthly Branch is identified with a different animal, the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Wèi is identified with the 羊 yáng.

What is a 羊 yáng? Therein lies a problem. Look up a Chinese-English dictionary and you will find that yáng means 'sheep'. But yáng does not actually mean 'sheep' at all. To find the real meaning, you need to look up a monolingual Chinese dictionary. The definition of yáng is as follows (from Xiandai han'yu cidian):

A ruminant mammal, generally with horns on its head. Divided into a number of types, including 山羊 shānyáng, 绵羊 miányáng, 羚羊 língyáng, etc.

A little further investigation reveals that:

山羊 shānyáng ('mountain yáng') = goat
绵羊 miányáng ('cotton yáng') = sheep
羚羊 língyáng = gazelle

In other words, goats, sheep, and antelopes are all different types of yáng. Since only the goat and the sheep have been domesticated, the Chinese generally divide yáng into two types: shānyáng ('goats') and miányáng ('sheep').

Given that yáng is a general term for both sheep and goats, it shouldn't be unthinkingly translated as 'sheep'. It could be either. For instance, 羊肉 yángròu or 'yáng meat' is commonly eaten in China. Many non-Chinese assume that yángròu is mutton. That's how it's defined in Chinese-English dictionaries. But go to one of the grassland areas where they catch and slaughter a 'sheep' for you to eat, and you'll be in for a surprise. The so-called 'sheep' is not of the woolly kind, it's a cute young goat with long straight hair. Goat meat may actually be more common than mutton in China, partly because it doesn't have the strong flavour that mutton has. The little sign below, from outside a small local restaurant in Hainan, is a graphic illustration of the possibility that your 羊肉 may be goat meat, showing the characters worked into what looks like the picture of a goat.

goat-like sheep

In other words, Year of the Goat and Year of the Sheep are equally correct because yáng covers both types of animal. The animal that goes with 羊年 yáng-nián ('year of the yáng') is often shown as a goat, but there is no ironclad rule about this.

The problem does not end here. The Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Mongolians have all borrowed the Chinese zodiac and use it to name the years. What is more, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mongolian, and Korean have separate words for sheep and goats, which means that they must make a choice: Is the zodiac animal a sheep or a goat? (I won't discuss Korean as it is beyond the scope of this site. I would be grateful for any information about Korean.)

The words for 'sheep' and 'goat' in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese are as follows.

Language Sheep Goat
Chinese 绵羊 / 綿羊
Mongolian Хонь
Vietnamese cừu

The Japanese use the Chinese character 羊 to write the word hitsuji meaning 'sheep'. In other words, the character 羊 unequivocally means 'sheep' in Japanese.

This creates a dilemma -- how to write the word yagi meaning 'goat'? Since Chinese doesn't have a character for 'goat', the Japanese had to devise a different solution. They took the Chinese word for 'goat', i.e. 山羊 ('mountain sheep') and read it yagi. Just another of those little quirks of Japanese writing that is best explained by referring back to Chinese.

In the zodiac, 未年 quite naturally becomes hitsuji-doshi in Japanese -- the Year of the Sheep.

The Mongolians traditionally identify five major livestock animals: Horses (морь mor'), sheep (хонь khon'), goats (ямаа yamaa), cattle (үхэр ükher), and camels (тэмээ temee). Given that livestock are essential to the livelihood of the nomadic Mongolians, one would think that they would be more sensitive to differences among these animals than some of their neighbours. And to the Mongolians, 未年 is the Year of the Sheep (хонь khon').

What of Vietnamese? The Vietnamese pronunciation of the Eighth Earthly branch, 未, is mùi. Under the Vietnamese system mùi is unequivocally identified with (the 'goat'), and not with cừu (the 'sheep'). Thus, năm mùi (the 'year of mùi') is unmistakably the Year of the Goat.

What the above linguistic analysis doesn't answer is the historical question of how it got this way, in particular:

  1. Why did the Japanese assign the character 羊 to hitsuji ('sheep') and not yagi ('goat')? Was there some factor in ancient times that swung the pendulum that way -- perhaps yáng did mean 'sheep' in ancient China, or perhaps the Japanese simply felt more familiar with sheep than with goats?
  2. Why did the Vietnamese identify muì with the goat rather than the sheep, which it was theoretically possible to do? Is it because the Chinese generally identified 羊年 yáng-nián 'year of the yáng' with the goat and the Vietnamese simply followed suit?

I'm afraid that I have no answer to these questions. Any information gratefully received!

叶剑飞 Victor said on 17 February 2015

Only English people have the problem in sheep or goat. In fact, Chinese character 羊 means goat or sheep or gazelle or something similar. Strictly speaking, the Chinese character 羊 is equivalent to‍ caprinae in biological classification.


The biological term "caprinae" has exactly the same meaning as the Chinese character 羊.

Bathrobe said on 22 July 2015

This isn't really true. The Caprinae consist of three 'tribes' divided into a range of genera. While all of the Caprini are known as 羊 (sheep or goats) in Chinese, the Ovibovini are known as 牛 (cattle or oxen), and the Naemorhedini as 羊 (sheep or goats) or 羚 (antelopes, gazelles). Naturally many of these names, especially those of exotic species, are artificial and have been influenced by English, but it's incorrect to say that the Caprinae are all called 羊.

Incidentally, there are also 羊 that don't belong to the Caprinae, notably the 黄羊, which is scientifically known in Chinese as 蒙古瞪羚 and in English as the Mongolian gazelle (or Dzeren). This species belongs to the Antelopinae.

Deb Black said on 19 February 2015

Happy New Year!


Why not year of the Unicorn? 

It makes sense after the Year of the Dragon.



Dennis Alexander said on 20 February 2015

Why do the Vietnamese identify mùi with the goat while the Japanese, Koreans, and Mongolians identify it with the sheep?

This morning on National Public Radio, a Vietnamese man explained that it’s because sheep are unknown in Vietnam, which is a hot, humid tropical country, but goats are very common there.

Ezra de Leon said on 20 February 2015

Keeping in mind that I'm not a native Korean speaker, the year in the Chinese zodiac is commonly referred to as the Year of the Sheep. A quick look at a Korean-English dictionary tells me that 'goat' in Korean is 염소 (yeom-so) and that sheep is 양 (yang). No doubt the word for sheep came from the Chinese. Korean also uses Chinese characters like they do in Japan, and it is called hanja (한자). In hanja, goat is 鹽素, and sheep is 羊. Although nowadays it's rarely used, 양고기 (lit. sheep meat) was used quite frequently in traditional Korean cuisine; however, a friend in Korea told me that it was more goat meat that was used. So it's confusing as to which animal ancient Koreans were referring to, and you likely need someone who specializes in Korean etymology to get a more definite answer. I hope this was some help.

Happy Year of the Ovicaprid,

Ezra de Leon

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