Happy Lunar New Year!
You may also know this day as Chinese New Year, or—especially if you are Chinese—simply, New Year. But in fact, various East Asian and Central Asian cultures have adopted the Chinese lunisolar calendar, one based upon the cycles of the moon (lunar) but also somewhat synchronized with the solar year, thus resulting with the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year always falling somewhere on or between January 21 and February 20. Along with the various places around the world where significant populations of Chinese people live like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, the Lunar New Year is also part of the national/local custom and culture in Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, and Vietnam as well as in Japan prior to the late 19th Century when a Western calendar and New Year Day was adopted.
As a child my family never really celebrated this day, but we recognized it, especially on the Japanese side. Back then we just called it Chinese New Year.
Which leads me to what I’d really like to explore today, what we call this year and especially the particular animal for this year. In the Chinese and/or Lunar calendar, a zodiac animal represents a particular year, one of twelve different animals for each year of the twelve-year cycle. (This posting is making no claim or comment upon the value of or belief in any zodiac.) The animal for this year is in the Mandarin language, yang. As the New York Times puts it, yang “does not make the distinction found in English between goats and sheep and other members of the Caprinae subfamily.” And continues that “yang might mean any such hoofed animal that eats grass and bleats.” How one translates yang in English is actually getting significant media attention. It’s interesting that we are discovering that vast array of meaning and translation challenges we face in our multicultural and multilanguage world.
There was a report on NPR this morning that had a correspondent walking through Manhattan’s Chinatown—incidentally not nearly as populated or diverse as Queens’ Chinatown, but so be it—getting native Chinese speakers’ opinions on what animal represents this year, is it a goat or a sheep. Sometimes it depends on where you come from. Sometimes it depends on what you like better. I really enjoyed how some people answer based upon the grazing habits of the animals and their effect upon local grasslands. In any event, the controversy doesn’t seem to be easily solved. A couple of design companies have actually used the translation controversy to help raise money for Heifer International, where you can vote for the “right” animal. Worthy cause that is.
Admittedly, I find some of this hype rather silly. Not because it isn’t important, but because it seems to not acknowledge the power of language to have a range of meaning. As one Chinese interviewee for the Times article, Mr. Zhao Shu, a folklore expert at the Beijing Institute of Culture and History, commented:
He also drew a lesson about the virtues of Chinese tradition. “In Western culture, things are subdivided into more and more detailed categories, and that’s why Europe has still not been unified after so many years,” he continued. “If you want to say whether it’s goat or sheep, then why not also ask whether it’s a ewe or a ram? But Chinese culture has an inclusive spirit and stresses harmony.”
Whether or not that’s true, it is fodder to think about. I also wonder why it seems media outlets are concentrating so on this issue this year, as the year of the yang occurs every twelve years. Was this never asked in the past?
Growing up, I always learned that this was the year of the Ram. A ram is understood as a male sheep, so that’s how I think about. No offense to goats, however. The Google doodle for today shows a ram. Although in Vietnam the doodle for today shows a goat. Thus, inconclusive I suppose.
From a pasturing and landscape aspect generally speaking, sheep are grazers, goats are browsers. Sheep prefer grass, goats prefer broader leaves. Goats can often be hardier. It’s convenient to know the differences. I think Mr. Zhao above may have been on to something in regards to the Western’s mind to over categorize though. We do like to divide our sheep from our goats. I know there are reasons for this but still, sometimes we do get overzealous.
A little over a week ago a friend was installed as the Minister of Word and sacrament in a nearby RCA church. I often find installation services (and ordinations too) very moving. One part of the liturgy, the charge to the minister goes like this:
Beloved servant in Christ,
be attentive to yourself and to all the flock
given to your care by the Holy Spirit.
Love Christ: feed his lambs, tend his sheep.
Following, I was invited to give the charge to the congregation. It was hard not to envision, and to call it out, that they are sheep, that they are lambs. And probably a few old goats too.
I want my sheep to do this or that. My goats to go there or here. Lambs? Lambs? Pay attention. As simple as that is to say, we are so uneasily categorized, aren’t we? As much as we focus on words and meaning, language still escapes us.
Perhaps there is something about this new year of the yang that we can learn from?
Happy New Year!