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Being 'Yang' at heart not all bad

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2015-02-13 07:56

The ovine, as shown in the Chinese retellings of The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, is seen mostly as the weak and the victimized, but not as the loyal. Other common usages in Western civilization 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 epitomize 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 sympathize 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.



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