Gong Hei Fat Choi: Happy Chinese New Year!

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Today is the first day of the Chinese calendar, and we welcome the year of the goat (or sheep or ram, according to which translation you choose). The year of the goat is part of an ancient tradition in which the Chinese zodiac, Shēngxiào, attaches animal signs to each lunar year in a cycle of 12 years.

It reflects a similar concept in western astrology and means “circle of animals” – and remains popular in Asian communities around the world.

But as we bring the year of the horse to an end, where did the animals of the Chinese zodiac come from and what do they mean?

It is known that the animals of the zodiac have been popular since the Han Dynasty, between 206 BC and 220 AD. Pottery artifacts dating back to the Tang Dynasty, 618 to 907 AD, show the animals were popular at that time – but they have also been found on relics from the Warring States Period, 475 to 221 BC.

According to some historians, the animals of the Chinese zodiac were brought to China via the Silk Road, the central Asia trade route that brought Buddhism from India to Han China in the 1st or 2nd century BC.

Others argue that the belief predates Buddhism and has origins in early Chinese astronomy that used Jupiter as a constant – due to its 12-year orbital period around the earth. Some suggest the use of animals in astrology began with ancient Chinese nomadic tribes, who developed the calendar for agriculture and hunting.

Red is the predominant color used in New Year celebrations. Red is the emblem of joy, and this color also symbolizes virtue, truth and sincerity. On the Chinese opera stage, a painted red face usually denotes a sacred or loyal personage and sometimes a great emperor. Candies, cakes, decorations and many things associated with the New Year and its ceremonies are colored red. The sound of the Chinese word for “red” is in Mandarin homophonous with the word for “prosperous”. Therefore, red is an auspicious color and has an auspicious sound.

The translation of the Mandarin word “yang” (since this is technically the Year of the Yang) – a “horned animal” – has led to dispute over whether the Chinese New Year will bring the year of the goat, sheep or ram. But folklorists say it is the western translation which is the problem, as the “yang” can mean either animal, depending on what Chinese character it is paired with.

Experts say it does not matter which animal the zodiac sign refers to, as the emphasis relies on the connotation of the animal. According to Zhao Shu, a researcher with the Beijing Research Institute of Culture and History, “This ‘yang’ is fictional. It does not refer to any specific kind of sheep or goat.”

The animal choice can depend on which area of Asia the person is from, as different regions of China have their own interpretations. According to Google, the phrase “the year of the ram” is most commonly used in India, followed by Canada and the United States, while the Philippines had high search levels for the “year of the sheep”.

The Year of the Goat has been predicted by Chinese astrologers to be a sign of a bad year. However, it is the eighth character of the zodiac and eight in Chinese sounds similar to their word for prosper. The Chinese commonly regard sheep as an auspicious animal, and the Year of the Sheep, therefore, heralds a year of promise and prosperity, so I’m not sure why some astrologers are expecting a bad year. To improve your fortunes this year, it is advised that people to wear black and blue, and to carry sheep talismans or accessories to help ward off bad luck.

Whichever you choose to use, Gong Hei Fat Choi, which loosely translates to “Congratulations and be prosperous,” and is a traditional greeting of the new year.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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