February 15, 2015 marked the first day of a new year in the Chinese calendar. According to the Chinese zodiac, which assigns an animal to each year in a 12-year cycle, currently we are in the Year of the Sheep.
One of the superstitious beliefs about the Year of the Sheep is that it is an unlucky year, which means among other things, that it is best not to give birth to a child during this year. In this article from the online journal Territory, the writer delves into the history of this belief and how it is harmful to society. He also contrasts it with what the Bible says about the source of blessings in life, notions of child-rearing, and the nature of sheep.
It’s important to note that the Chinese word for sheep (羊 – yang) can also be translated as goat, ram, or lamb. We have opted to use sheep in this translation.
Who Says The Year of the Sheep is Inauspicious?
The Year of the Sheep is here, and once again we hear the folk saying, "Those born in the Year of the Sheep are unlucky." This is akin to saying that there are many things in human culture that "cannot be confirmed or proven false." Even though there is no basis for this saying, it still deeply influences the choices of many people. Young couples still hold to a “prefer to believe in them” attitude and avoid having children in the Year of the Sheep. As a result every Year of the Sheep there is a significant drop in the birth rate in China.
How should we understand this long-standing practice and how it deeply influences the cultural undercurrent of Chinese people today?
Spreading Falsehoods About “Unlucky Year of the Sheep”
"Spreading falsehood" is a phrase more appropriate than most to describe the idea that "the Year of the Sheep is unlucky." The origin of the saying is unknown. Furthermore, in its popularity it mixes together folk, cultural, psychological, and even many political factors. The more it spreads, the more fantastic it becomes. And the more it spreads the more ironclad the notion becomes. This also drives forward the characterization that being a sheep is inauspicious.
There are many articles online that explore the origin of this idea that "sheep are unlucky." Aside from copying off of each other, the basic information of these articles reveals they were constantly distorted as they were spread by later generations.
Among the six kinds of livestock closest to humans – horses, cows, sheep, pigs, dogs, and chickens – the eyes of the sheep are most unique. Sheep are the only livestock to have an elongated, horizontal-shaped pupil. In bright sunshine the pupil will contract, revealing a completely white eye. The black of the eye looks very small, while most of the eye is white, making the sheep appear wooden and lifeless. Farmers call this "dead sheep eyes."
These eyes make it easy for the sheep to see the grassy surroundings. They have nothing to do with beauty or ugliness, good or bad luck. People describe small, slanted pupils of the human eye as "dead sheep eyes." From this notion of the ugliness of the "dead sheep eye" there gradually developed the idea that it was also inauspicious. Later generations said that people with this kind of eye were unlucky. And so was born the idea of the relationship between the sheep and inauspiciousness and the belief that those born in the Year of the Sheep are unlucky. These ideas can be seen in the "Ma Yi Shen Cha" (麻衣神查) and "San Cai Tu Hui" (三才图会) as well as in unofficial folk histories.*
According to tradition related to the ill-fated Year of the Sheep, it is believed that the saying, "out of ten sheep, nine are incompetent" (十羊九不全) comes from the late Qing Dynasty. In her later years the Empress Dowager Cixi, a "sheep," interfered in domestic affairs; this harmed the country and sparked public indignation. In addition, Qing court ministers Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang were both "sheep." Consequently, people placed blame for the country's disintegration and the grievances of the poor and weak on the "sheep."
Folk customs evolve over a long period of time. They are inherited, yet can be variable. They are passed down from one generation to another, yet change over time.
For example, one can see the evolutionary nature of these folk customs from the saying, "shaving one's head in the first month of the lunar year will kill one’s maternal uncle" (正月剃头死舅舅). After the Manchurian Qing rulers came to power, they instituted political policies to force the Han Chinese of the central plains to shave their heads and change their fashion. This was met with resistance by the Han Chinese. Later, although such compromises as "wear Manchu dress in life, wear Ming dress in death"(生从死不从) were reached, the Han were forced to accept the decrees of the Qing court. Yet, with each first lunar month, people still did not shave their heads in order to to express the sentiment of "remembering the past" (si jiu 思旧). They used the term “the past” because they were not allowed to refer to the Ming Dynasty. As generations went by and the custom was handed down, the rationale behind the custom gradually faded from memory. All that remained was the regulation to "not shave one's head in the first month." Furthermore "remembering the past" (si jiu 思旧) eventually became "killing your uncle" (si jiu 死舅). Today, in most areas of northern China people still uphold the tradition of not cutting their hair in the first month of the lunar year.
The power of language is tremendous. No matter how absurd a notion might be, once it forms, it is difficult to eliminate, and its impact can be huge. For example, since the Reform and Opening Up policy, southern customs have migrated north, and Cantonese culture has exerted a tremendous influence on the Mainland. The Cantonese pronunciation for the word "eight" (八 – ba)is similar to the Mandarin word "fa" (发), which implies getting rich. This word has become very popular, and as a result, the word "eight" has come to be seen as a lucky number around the entire country. In fact, from the origin of Chinese characters, this is particularly absurd because "ba" and "fa" in Chinese mean exactly the opposite here. "Eight" expresses precisely the same meaning as "背" (bei, to hide) and should be understood as "out of luck, hiding luck" (背时、背运 – bei shi, bei yun). For example, the character "公" (gong), meaning "public" comes from the word "私" (si), meaning "private" ("厶" is the archaic form). You can see in "公" that they added 八 (eight) on top of 厶 (private) to form the word 公, representing "public." Therefore, to hide privacy means to be public. Today, people everywhere actually use the "eight" with the phrase "out of luck, hiding luck" to express the desire to "get rich and flourish" (发财发达). What a complete absurdity!
But let’s return to the topic of the “sheep.” The character "sheep" (羊 – yang) in ancient Chinese and the character "祥” (xiang) from the word "auspicious" (吉祥 – jixiang) were originally the same word. There is a beautiful sense of blessing in the language. Today, because of some inexplicable historical and cultural reasons, the word gets more corrupted with its use.
Seeking Good Fortune, People Set Their Own Standard of "Good"
Superstition is deeply embedded in Chinese culture and has a close connection to folk customs. The lunar calendar will mark "suitable" and "unsuitable" times to handle certain affairs, such as when to build a house, the directional placement of a house (风水 – fengshui), and when to consider marriage. Often before marriage, a couple will first consult their birth data and horoscopes. There is a saying: "the poor burn incense, the rich consult fortune-telling" (穷烧香，富算命). Superstitious customs have a long and winding history. Belief in superstitions seems to strengthen around major life events; when a person’s fate is uncertain, they naturally turn to superstitious ideas for help.
The one-child policy turns childbirth into a "one-off" event. People are forced to invest all their effort and preparation into this one child. Today, as this generation of only children begins to enter the stage of parenthood, they hold even more extreme expectations for their children.
Cultural orientation regarding pre- and post-natal care has made childrearing more focused on development during the infancy period: when to become pregnant; when to give birth; prenatal education; and even kindergarten and primary education. There is a belief that before a child is born; everything about him/her is within the range of human control. Couple this belief with the belief that the Year of the Sheep is an unlucky year and we can see why many people will conclude that it is better to avoid giving birth during the Year of the Sheep. This may seem "well-intentioned," but a closer look at this desire reveals an obvious problem with the human heart.
One problem is that people define their own standard of "good." In the book of Proverbs it says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death." Throughout human history, we have repeatedly committed too many regrettable mistakes that have backfired on us. For example, gene technology originated with "good" intensions, but there were unpredictable consequences that were outside of human control.
Attempting to define the standard of good and evil is nothing other than a human sin. People want to leave God and determine for themselves what is "good." In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, trusting in their own judgment that the forbidden fruit "was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired," set their own standard and made their own decision. From this, they took a small step and humans took a big step. They caused all of humanity to fall into sin.
The Bible is correct: "God catches the wise in their craftiness." People turn away from God and rely on their own abilities. Since the building of the Tower of Babel, humans have continuously left behind behind countless ruins and disasters. The problem is not whether people's intentions are good, but that people simply cannot define what is "good."
In comparing Chinese and Western culture, one will clearly see that the manner in which Chinese people express love for their children is different from Europeans and Americans. Under the influence of Christian culture, European and American society commonly view children as property belonging to God; He has merely given them to parents to care for. Parents are the “guardians” of children, rather then their “owners.” In one sense being a parent is a bit like being a “professional manager” who takes on the responsibility of caring for God’s “property” and striving to increase the "value" of this property by 30, 40, 50, 100 times over.
Furthermore, because of the belief in the concept that "everyone is a son or daughter of God," parents and children do not distinguish in terms of seniority, since all are children of God. The child is seen as being an independent individual, with an independent personal will, and parents should not force their children to obey a fate set out by them.
The foundation of Chinese culture, however, is the family and the belief that children are subordinate to parents and the family. In the absence of belief in God in the Chinese cultural environment, people only seek the glory of man. And this glory can only be accomplished through unrealistic comparisons and competitions. There is a saying: "When children are small they fiercely compete with their father. When people are old, then they compete with their children." This kind of cultural atmosphere not only leads people to aggressively pursue "success," but also intensifies the social pressure for people to compete with each other. Continuously passing down this kind of pressure results in a fear of giving birth in the Year of the Sheep. Through this avoidance of the sheep, you can clearly hear the voice of someone saying, "Don't lose at the starting line!"
Are children God-given or man-created? This is the opening question when considering whether or not to have a "baby sheep."
Since the Chinese economy has transitioned from being an agriculturally based economy to a competitive market economy, a "jungle principle" has taken root. Confucian ritual culture has gradually faded out. We can see this in the popularity of the book “Wolf Totem” in 2004, and the concept of a “wolf culture,” which has taken the country by storm. Numerous books immediately hit the market with the word "wolf" stamped on the cover, such as "Wolf Law," "The Wisdom of Wolves," "Wolf Spirit," and "The Way of the Wolf." A fiercely brave fighter, the wolf is viewed as the victor in a "jungle society," and in an arrogant world he is greatly revered even in the most bitterly competitive business community.
This sort of popular worship of wolf totems soon found its way into children's education. In 2011, "Tiger Moms" and "Wolf Dads" appeared everywhere on the scene, leading to intense controversy in society. Although their method of educating children cannot possibly receive approval from the education sector, "Tiger Moms" and "Wolf Dads" have become role models due to their "education success." Their imitators are coming out of the woodwork.
Boorish attitudes combined with goal-oriented utilitarianism have converged into disgraceful social practices. People often witness repulsive social phenomena, such as cruel competition, greedy plundering, self-seeking profit, and the neglect of morals and integrity. However, neglecting this kind of cultural mentality will certainly affect families and children's education. The fact is, there is a hidden battlefront in the family: the wolf culture is declaring war against the sheep culture and it is determined to win.
Re-examine the "Sheep" Spirit in Culture
Language is a cultural phenomenon unique to humans and is a wonderful God-given ability. In Chinese, through the meaning brought out in the composition of the Chinese character "sheep," one can't help but recall God's kindness expressed therein.
In Chinese culture, the character "sheep" has been regarded as the symbol of the word "auspicious" in its very early origins. In ancient Chinese, the two character word "auspicious" (吉祥 – jixiang) often substituted the second character 祥 (xiang) with the character for sheep (羊 – yang) and was written as (吉羊 – jiyang). In his second century AD Chinese dictionary, Xu Shen said, "Sheep is Xiang." The late Qing dynasty scholar Wang Guowei in his "Guan Tang Collection" also said "Xiang is the classical Chinese character for sheep."
In Chinese, many important terms use the character for sheep to express beautiful concepts. For example, look at the character "美" ( mei – beautiful). On the top there is a "羊" (sheep) and on the bottom there is a "大" (da – big). The "big" itself represents a person's body profile (the character "人" (ren – person) is a sideways body profile). The person covered by the lamb (referring specifically here to men), is "beautiful."
The bottom of the character "姜" ( jiang – ginger) is the character "女" ( nu – female). In ancient Chinese, people would use the word "ginger" as an alternative term for beautiful women, such as Meng Jiang Nu (孟姜女), the heroine of a famous Qing dynasty folk tale. The character 姜 (jiang – ginger) shows that the woman covered by the lamb is beautiful.
"善" (shan – good, virtuous) also has a sheep on the top. The bottom is a laughing "mouth" (口 –kou). So, the character "good" expresses hearty laughter that is covered by the lamb.
"義" (yi – righteousness) is a "sheep" on the top and an "I" (我 – wo) on the bottom, expressing that the "I" covered by the lamb can be called "righteous."
"盖" (gai – cover) is to be covered up by the lamb.
"儀" (li – ritual) is a ceremonial rite; notice the "I" is covered by the lamb.
From these examples, you can clearly see the meaning that "sheep" expresses in Chinese. "Sheep" carries the most important concepts in Chinese and they are all positive ideas: beauty, goodness, righteousness, and auspiciousness. Reacquainting ourselves with these characters and reexamining the meaning of "sheep" in Chinese culture will give many people something to reflect on, as well as break them away from the "Unlucky Year of the Sheep" myth.
We know that in the Bible, God often describes the relationship between shepherd and sheep to point to the relationship between God and his people. In his most well-known psalm, David says, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters…" (Psalm 23).
Jesus Christ also fills the role of the Lamb of God and was sacrificed on the cross for human sin, saving mankind from death and reconciling mankind with God. In cultures around the world, sheep can be used to offer sacrifices to express human veneration of God.
The Year of the Sheep is here. May people in the New Year be willing to reject superstition and stay away from absurd, ridiculous folklore. Remember that every child is a gift from God. Children born this year also bring God's blessing with them into this world. Remember to readily give yourself and your future generations to God; blessings come from him, not from us.
There is a song with a lot of truth in it that says, "There are many things in the future that I cannot clearly make out right now." That's true, and in the same way a child's future does not lie in man's designs. And since a person’s tomorrow is not in his own hands, why should we plan in vain according to a child’s zodiac sign?
*these are encyclopedias of ancient Chinese sayings
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