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Sheep considered filial, sensitive, beautiful
By Zhang Qian

SOPHY Nie has been busy filling her house with baby stuff, waiting for her angel’s arrival. Expected to give birth on February 19, which is Chinese New Year’s Day, Nie is likely to have one of the earliest sheep babies in 2015.

Though her mother-in-law tried to persuade her to get a C-section to avoid a “sheep baby,” which is believed to be unlucky in traditional Chinese culture, Nie is determined to let the baby arrive in the natural way.


“Nothing else matters as long as my child is healthy,” says Nie. 31, a Shanghai native. “I will love him or her whether it is in the Year of Horse or Sheep.”

Beautifully white, clean, gentle and calm, the sheep (yang) is a lovely animal in Chinese people’s eyes, though few regard its fate favorably. They are often portrayed as kind-hearted yet passive animals in traditional Chinese idioms.

Yang luo hu kou, or a sheep falling into a tiger’s mouth, is an expression to describe a hopeless situation. Di yang chu fan, or a ram with its horns twined with the fence, is often used to picture the dilemma that one is caught in. Wang yang bu lao, or mending the fold after the sheep have been stolen, suggests that it still helps to prevent further loss if one makes a remedy after a problem occurs.

However, the sheep is a hero in ancient Chinese legend just as Prometheus is to the Western world. Sheep used to be one of god’s animals that lived only in the Heavenly Palace. Pitying humans suffering from limited food, the Divine Sheep stole the five cereals from the Heavenly Palace, brought them to humans and told them how to plant.

After enjoying a great harvest in the first year, the humans held a grand ceremony for the mercy of Divine Sheep. The ceremony disturbed the Jade Emperor who later discovered the Divine Sheep’s theft. The emperor ordered the Divine Sheep be killed and eaten by people in the men’s world.

Amazingly, green grass and sheep grew the following spring in the place where the Divine Sheep was sentenced to death. Sheep have lived and thrived in the men’s world ever since, all the while sacrificing their flesh, milk, fleece and skin to mankind.

When the Jade Emperor decided to select 12 animals as zodiac signs and grant them god titles, humans elected the sheep as one of them. Though still rankled about the Divine Sheep’s theft, the Jade Emperor agreed to include it on the list.

People born in the Year of the Sheep are believed to carry some of the sheep’s features. Sheep people are said to be tender, polite, filial, clever and kind-hearted. They often have special sensitivity to art and beauty, faith in a certain religion and a special fondness for quiet living. Those born in this year, especially women, are willing to take good care of others but are easy beset by pessimism and hesitation.

Famous “sheep” include ambitious hero Cao Cao during the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280), Emperor Taizong Li Shimin of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), patriotic general Yue Fei in the southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), Empress Dowager Cixi in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), current Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and actress Zhang Ziyi.

Though appreciating the sheep’s sacrifice, many Chinese people believe the Year of the Sheep is never a good year to be born in, probably because of the miserable ending of the Divine Sheep.

Though there’s no basis in fact, these notions are passed down through generations.

An old saying goes that “shi yang jiu bu quan” or “nine out of 10 sheep are incomplete.” It indicates that people born in the Year of the Sheep will most likely lead a hard life, such as failure in marriage or career.

Many people hold that female “sheep” born in winter may suffer because they are delivered into a world without grass. Others believe that over-sensitivity, indecisiveness and weak will — weaknesses considered common among the “sheep” — are likely to be responsible for their “bad luck.”

In an online survey in mid-2014 conducted by people.cn, 52 percent of the 1,000 participants said they knew people who tried to avoid having a “sheep” baby. Media including CCTV’s official microblog and the Liaoning Daily reported a sharp rise in the birth rate last year as a possible sign of people trying to avoid having “sheep” babies.

Mathew Zhao, a 27-year-old newlywed, said his parents have forbidden him to have a baby at the moment, as his mother does not want a “sheep” grandchild.

“It seems that we have to hold it until the Year of the Monkey at least,” he sighs, “Fortunately, we are still young.”

His 25-year-old wife, Nacha from Thailand, is very puzzled. “I really don’t understand what’s going on and what’s wrong with a ‘sheep’ baby,” she says. “But I respect his parents — and the culture.”

Not everyone, of course, goes by the traditional belief. Sixty-year-old Lu Meiying considers herself a very lucky “sheep” though born in a very cold winter.

Fortune often smiled at her in the past 60 years. A chance encounter with a military officer on a bus helped her gain entrance to the army while many other teenagers were forced to work as farmers in the countryside during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). When she asked to leave, Lu was offered a chance for nurse training linked directly to a promotion in the army.

Even after transferring to civilian work, she was promoted just one year before retirement, guaranteeing her satisfactory pension. Her considerate husband and promising son are the biggest gifts in her life, she says.

“Though I didn’t have a big career or make huge fortune, I am not miserable at all as many people expect from a female sheep,” says Lu. “Surely there were difficult times, like limited food in childhood, but everybody my age had gone through that. I was not the only one.”

Except for embracing it as their zodiac sign, Chinese people still like sheep as a symbol of beauty, filial piety and justice.

The shape of a sheep is widely used in ancient Chinese artworks like copper lamps, wine vessels and pottery decorations. And people describe delicate and precious white jade to be “suet jade.”

The Chinese character of mei (beauty 美) composed of yang (sheep 羊) and da (big 大), give an indication about ancient Chinese’s aesthetic tendencies; while the character of xian (delicious 鲜) composed of yu (fish 鱼) and yang (sheep 羊) reveals the two most appreciated food ingredients in traditional Chinese culture.

Sheep have always been highly valued as a most filial and grateful animal by the Chinese from when they first observed lambs always kneeling to suck the mother’s milk.

Xie Zhi, a single-horned black-haired sheep in Chinese legend, is a smart, magical beast that distinguishes truth from lies and reveals who is honest and who is wicked. Xie Zhi was a great help to judge Gao Yao, working for the ancient tribe leader Yao. Facing people with conflicts or disputes, Xie Zhi would point its horn at the unjust one, and even killed and ate evil ones who had committed severe sins.

As a symbol of justice and fairness, the image of Xie Zhi is widely used in today’s judicial and supervision systems. Xie Zhi Guan, a hat made in the shape of the single-horn sheep, first surfaced in the Chu Kingdom during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and was used as part of the judge’s costume in China from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The pattern of Xie Zhi was also used as the buzi (the decoration on official robes) for supervisory and judicial officials in the Qing Dynasty.

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