THE French call a goat a poor man’s cow, wrote Anne Willan in her cookbook The Country Cooking of France, because it needs no more than roadside herbage to survive. While this may be true, don’t expect the Chinese to buy it.
It’s the Lunar New Year, after all—that time of year when the word auspicious commands an almost superstitious reverence, one must take care to utter only words that are sweet. Read: all things bright and boisterous, exuberant and abundant, rich and colorful—just the kind of words you wouldn’t quite associate with the goat, never mind that the dictionary tells us it is “noted for its lively and frisky behavior.”
“Too weak, the goat,” wrote my friend Björn in a recent email from Cambodia. He had decided this would be the Year of the Ram, not the Goat. “Ram is so much more alluring. The daring power of the Ram. Mountain dwellers traversing tough terrain.”
Add to this, the ram is chubbier, more adorable, and woollier too, which makes it the perfect animal for a soft toy or an inflatable one and a bleating good New Year mascot. He-goats, on the other hand, sport sparse, wispy beards that grace a gaunt face dominated by beady, dopey, melancholy eyes. Little wonder festive ornaments and decorations of the season—at home, across storefronts, and all over Chinatown—warm up towards the ram.
What could possibly save the goat from an image problem in a year that is rightfully his? Not his horns certainly, for even here, he loses in the game of poetry and aesthetics. Think goat horns, and what comes to mind is the satyr—those lustful, drunken woodland gods of Greek mythology, represented as a man with a goat’s ears, tail, legs, and horns. And with horns so lance-like and lethal, they are no match to the ram’s gracefully looped ones—at least, as far as symbolism goes. One evokes belligerence, the other benevolence, majesty and beauty.
Feel-so-good and symbolism aside, one would think that semantics could come to the goat’s rescue, but that’s exactly where the ambiguity lies. Unlike English or French, which has two distinct words for goat and sheep, chèvre and mouton, Chinese has a generic character yang that straddles across the two worlds of meek bleats and melodious baa baa. The only way to be specific about the kind of ruminant one is referring to is to add the characters mountain and wool as prefixes, so that the words become:
山羊 (shan yang) mountain goat
绵羊 (mian yang) wool goat
Where the goat can stake its claim to the yang nian—the goat year—is in the realm of philately and history. Goats have always dominated zodiac stamps in China as well as the agricultural landscape, geographically and historically speaking. The Chinese cultural milieu has always leaned towards the goat, noted Professor Huang Yang of the Nantong City Party School, for the simple reason that grazing lands devoted to goats have always been wider and more extensive since the days of the Han dynasty.
While certain scholars would counter that the choice of this Lunar New Year’s zodiac animal could well be determined by geography—the northerners would root for the sheep; the southerners, the goat—the truth is that the goat’s footprints extends all over China, surpassing those of the sheep.
This is probably what goat purists like my brother like to hear. He sees himself only as a goat, not a sheep or a ram—not because he warms up to one animal over the other, but because of sheer correctness. But correctness doesn’t have to trump good fun and good cheer in good times like these, all 15 days of it.
The pious Christian can send a message exhorting, “May we grow in disciple-sheep this coming year,” while a brand-name boutique wishes you “Happy Newe Year” on its storefront with ewe rendered in a different color. Funny how I didn’t find any ditties or giddy rhymes in my phone with goat puns or word-play until this afternoon.
Goat Xi Fa Cai!