BEING ‘ YANG’ AT HEART NOT ALL BAD
The sheep, the zodiac animal of 2015, may be easily led astray, literally or figuratively. But in Chinese folklore, it inspires by its spirit of self-sacrifice and its association with fending off hunger.
When I first ordered mutton formy daughters at a restaurant, I feared it might be a traumatizing experience for them. They have been fed a steady diet of the cartoon series mistakenly titled Pleasant Goat and Big BigWolf. What would they feel if they found out they were chowing down on their favorite character?
Not bad, as it turned out. They just shrugged and kept gobbling it up.
Arguably China’s most popular television cartoon, which has spawned a wide array of merchandise, Pleasant Goat and Big BigWolf features a lovable cadre of sheep, humorously named after Chinese homonyms. In Chinese, the sound yang can refer to one of dozens of different words, each with its own meaning and forming even more variations when coupled with other words. Thus, the male lead is called Xiyangyang, meaning happy or cheerful, with nothing to do with the ovine animal if not spelt out, and the female lead Meiyangyang being the equivalent ofMinnie to Xiyangyang’sMickey.
There doesn’t seem to be a goat in the series, to the possible confusion of English speakers. TheMandarin word for goat is shanyang, literally mountain sheep. Inmy hometown on eastern China’s plains with their web of canals and lakes, the default breed is huyang, or lake sheep. And we call lamb xiaoyang, small sheep. Unimaginative, isn’t it, compared with specialized words like ram or wether (a castrated sheep).
There is a respected Chinese company with a long history of advertising its wool products by saying yang three times, in a child’s voice. It’s a cute way of reminding customers of the origin and quality of their wool. In 2008, it launched another campaign in which the other 11 zodiac animals were pronounced in the same way. The result was disastrous. While the public loved “sheep sheep sheep”, they hated “pig pig pig” or “cow cow cow”. It simply did not work as childish patter.
Chinese share with other cultures one major symbolic meaning of sheep, which is the characteristic of timidity or docility. While pigs, hardly adorable in the Chinese eye, put up a fight when slaughtered, sheep hardly utter a sound when shepherded to their fate. But the Christian connotation of sheep and lamb has not spilled over into the mainstream. The herd mentality