The sheep in Chinese folklore inspires the spirit of self-sacrifice and its association with fending off hunger.

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 for my daughters at a restaurant, I feared it might be a traumatising experience for them. They have been fed a steady diet of the cartoon series mistakenly titled Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf. What would they feel if they found out they were chowing down on their favourite 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 Big Wolf 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 of Minnie to Xiyangyang’s Mickey.

 There doesn’t seem to be a goat in the series, to the possible confusion of English speakers. The Mandarin word for goat is shanyang, literally mountain sheep. In my 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 specialised 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 of the animal, however, is acknowledged in the Chinese word for herd or mass, qun.

 The Chinese word for shepherd is more often associated with the cow than with sheep. The archetypal image of a Chinese shepherd boy is one sitting on the back of a cow and roaming a rice paddy, widely different from the cowboy of the American West. The most famous Chinese shepherd who survived by herding sheep was not a child, but an emissary assigned to the northern nation of the Hun. Su Wu (140-60 BC) was detained by the Hun, but he refused to betray his own country. As a punishment, he was exiled to the grassland to be a shepherd. He did it for 19 years before he was released to return to his homeland. Now he is an icon of patriotism.

 The ovine, as shown in the Chinese retellings of The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, is seen mostly as the weak and the victimised, but not as the loyal. Other common usages in Western civilisation have failed to gain ground in the Chinese lexicon: black sheep is often translated as "the horse that gives a bad name to the herd" and never verbatim.

 The cultural implications of sheep have evolved a great deal along the course of Chinese history. It may never have stood for strength or defiance, but it used to epitomise beauty. The Chinese word for beauty, mei, is "sheep" stacked on top of "big". It means, when a sheep is big, it is a sight of beauty.

 Sadly, this reinforces the notion that sheep exist for human consumption, since obviously its "beauty" is not as a pet, but as food. The Chinese word for "delicious" also contains the character for sheep on the side of the word.

 There is an ancient tale in Central China in which a man named Yang Erlang abuses his sister and her son comes to the rescue. To mend his relationship with his sister and his nephew, he presents a sheep to them every summer, which is a gesture of his contrition. Because his surname "Yang" is a homonym of the sheep, he is suggesting that his crime is punishable by death and the sheep is his surrogate. It developed into a local custom to the point that sheep were rare, and very expensive, by that time of the year.

 Sheep appeared extensively in totem images of antiquity. It was the preferred animal for sacrificial rituals. However, the term "sacrificial lamb" does not have an exact equivalent in Chinese. The closest I can think of is tizui yang, the scapegoat or the fall guy. Some have detected a noble streak in its behavior and fate, but others would not as much identify with it as sympathise with it.

 Of course it is ridiculous to find traits of the zodiac animal in all the people born in the zodiac years, theoretically 100 million-plus in China. In the echelon of social perception, the sheep may not be as high as the dragon or the horse, but definitely above the rat or the snake. Yet, we have read positive interpretations into every one of them-just to be auspicious.

 The most auspicious legend concerning the sheep is actually the mythological origin of Guangzhou, the metropolis in southern China. According to the myth, five immortals arrive in town, riding five rams with ears of grain in their mouths. They give the grain to the people and bless them with an eternity of bumper harvests. The immortals depart, but the rams are transformed into stone statues, which still stand on a hill in downtown Guangzhou.

 The rams in this story are not food per se. They brought not just food, they brought the seeds of hope. 

–By Raymond Zhou