2015: The Year of The Ram! The Goat? The Sheep? Which Is It? What Is It About?

With every new year, comes another "New Year" for those who follow the Chinese tradition. As this site was last updated, we are coming to the end of the year known as 乙未 (yǐwèi) in the 60-year cycle. The Chinese New Year began on February 19 aof 2015. According to Chinese folklore, at that time, we ended the previous "Year of the Horse", which was known as 甲午 (jiǎwǔ). At the same time, the “Year of the Ram” or “Year of the Sheep” began, depending on who you ask. While it is true that most Chinese no longer believe firmly in the traditional beliefs with the weight of generations past, these beliefs are certainly nowhere near dead and remain richly embedded in Chinese thought and still passed down and carried out.

So...Sheep, Ram, or Goat. Which Is It?

The reason we have three different terms is because in Chinese, the character for all three is more or less the same: 羊. It can meaning either sheep or goat, as it is common to both terms. However, in American Chinese culture, it is typically though of as the sheep, however, considering the zodiac is seen in other Asian countries, such as Japan and Vietnam, you may see different interpretations. We will say it means "sheep" here, but know that "goat" may be the case as well. It really varies regionally. And remember, a ram is simply a male sheep. Whichever name you call it, the folk legend and alleged effects are the same, while the mascot varies.

A Bit About the Lunar Cycle

In a companion article, found here, we discuss how the entire 60-year cycle is broken down, as well as showing the process of how the “heavenly stems” and “earthly branch” systems combine to create the Chinese lunar cycle. While we won’t look at everything about the entire system today, we do want to bring slight attention to the “animal” part of the zodiac. The belief of tying an animal to certain parts of the calendar was a product of its ancient times. In its early years of being fleshed out, animals were still divinely worshipped as part of religious beliefs, and twelve especially significant to China through divine legend were selected as “representatives” of the various parts of the twelve-year cycle created under the “heavenly stem” and “earthly branch” system, each of which iterate five times to become a full “cycle”. Let's focus now on the animal that represents this year, the Sheep

The Legend of The Sheep

The mythical story about the sheep, that shapes today's celebrations, is mostly a product of Taoist thought, mixed in with Chinese traditions as well. The Chinese early religious concept of Heaven is thought of as the “Temple of Heaven”, which has various deities under the “super deity” of the Jade Emperor, who keep watch over the earth together. In this legend, a divine sheep who lived between the Temple in Heaven and earth was said to have noticed one time, that those on earth were famished and without much grain, the only grain of which was available in the Temple of Heaven itself. It pleaded its request for the Jade Emperor (the head God in Taoist beliefs) to give some of the divine grain to the people. On account of the grain’s divine property, and the Jade Emperor’s stingy personality, this request to share the divine food with the common people was rejected. This didn’t stop the divine sheep, who thought of the poor people without it. The Sheep then stole a seed of each of the five special grains in the middle of the night to give back to the people, transporting himself from the Temple of Heaven to the earthly realm. It did so, and led to a massive harvest of many new things, all traced back to the introduction of the “five magic seeds”. In thanks, the farmers on Earth threw a large feast and celebration in honor of the noble sheep. This had the effect of angering the Jade Emperor for the sheep’s trespass, which caused him to banish the sheep from the Temple of Heaven, to live a simple life on earth, and to be eaten every year by the people in retribution. It is said from that point on, sheep began to inhabit the earth, but the work of the Divine Sheep was remembered by the people forever, and this is why the Sheep is embodied as one of the Twelve Animals.


Another constant with Chinese Year, tied to the Daoist beliefs, is the belief of the 太岁 (Tàisuì), or "god of the year". In traditional Chinese thought, each of the sixty years we discussed earlier is said to have its own “Taisui”, which are all major figures in Taoist beliefs. Each of these figures is said to bring good luck to some during that year, neutral luck to others, and bad luck on those who oppose him. Each year, this works out to a various balance of allies, neutral parties, and foes every year. In the particular year we are now entering, known as the 乙未 (yǐwèi), the Taisui this year is said to be General Yang Xian .As part of the cycle, it is belived that bad luck will fall on those who belong to the Sheep, Rat, Bull, and Dog, as they are in opposition to General Yang Xian.

The 本命年 (Běnmìngnián)

Did you catch something there just now? This IS the year of the Sheep. So why is it that during "your" year, if you are a sheep, that you're going to have bad luck? One would think that when the 12-year cycle completes itself, that year that it returns to you animal would be an auspicious and lucky year, right? Well, folk belief would actually be the opposite. Typically, the year in which a 12-year cycle and, in other words, “your year”, returns is said to the be the 本命年 (Běnmìngnián). And in this year, many disasters and calamities are to happen. Part of this is a traditional belief that the gods judge the world for all its good and bad every year, and take turns blessing and punishing those in certain years, and it so happen that usually the return of the 本命年 (Běnmìngnián) is the year that those people will receive much misfortune, as it simply “their turn” to endure it.

Red, for many reasons, is considered a lucky and happy color, so among the traditions one might engage in during their bad year include wearing red underwear, lucky bracelets, and having a “lucky animal” known as a 貔貅 (Píxiū) nearby. Red is basically a lucky color in Chinese society because it is the color of many life-giving things, such as the sun and blood. It is thought that wearing much red and paying lots of respect to the gods is a way of mitigating an otherwise dangerous year. There is even a folk saying about the year: “本命年犯太岁,太岁当头坐,无喜必有祸” (běn mìng nián fàn Tàisuì, Tàisuì dāng tóu zuò, wúxǐ bì yǒu huò), a sentence that reminds us, "Your return year goes against Taisui, with Taisui at the throne, for many a misfortune you will groan"

Modern Chinese New Year

Most typically, Chinese New Year in America is celebrated amongst Chinese communities. The varying degrees of “American” and “Chinese” in American-Chinese identity need to be pointed out. Not all Chinese people will celebrate all traditions. But amongst the most common ones are the handing out of red evenlopes, 红包 (hóngbāo) with money to wish prosperity upon children, a usual visit to family and sometimes friends to wish them a happy new year, often with plenty of food, drinks, and games. This kind of visiting in particular is known as 拜年 (bàinián). There are also usually dragon dances held at larger community centers. Another tradition is the lighting of fireworks, both this and the dragon dance are said to help ward and scare off evil spirits to start the year off on the right foot. Each country that celebrates it usually has its own rendition of a Chinese New Year party on TV, most famously China puts on the “Chinese New Year Get-Together” known as 春晚 (Chūnwǎn). All in all, Chinese people take this time to throw out the bad luck and sorrows of past years and start the new year off on a good foot.

Related Vocabulary

The current year in the Chinese cycle until Jan 28, 2016.
The Year of the Sheep (Or Ram, or Goat)
The Chinese traditional agricultural calendar, upon which Chinese New Year is based and calculated
A group name for the twelve mythical animals of the lunar cycle
The current "ruling god of the year"
A "guardian animal" usually worn or placed nearby thought to bring good luck on those who have/wear it
The evening before Chinese New Year, typically when much of the festivities take place.
A famous TV arts and talent showcase program in China watched on Chinese New Year's Eve
The first day of the new Chinese year, literally "Spring Festival".
ancient times
the five heavenly grains in the Legend of the Divine Sheep
red envelope (usually filled with money as a gift, esp. to children)
verb - to pay a visit to friends/family near Chinese New Year
the "return" year of the Chinese cycle to your birth year/animal, allegedly unlucky
běn mìng nián fàn Tàisuì, Tàisuì dāng tóu zuò, wúxǐ bì yǒu huò
A short folk rhyme about how the 本命年 (běn mìng nián) is rumored to be unfortunate, like saying "Your return year goes against Taisui, with Taisui at the throne, for many a misfortune you will groan"