At Amcare Women's and Children's Hospital in Beijing, instructor Li Suzhen is preparing couples for parenthood, teaching them how to take care of their newborns. With about 40 years in the industry under her belt, Li can guess why attendance in her course is down – the Year of the Sheep.
"We have seen an obvious drop of the number of pregnant women coming to our clinic this year," Li explains. "The superstitious idea that the sheep brings bad luck still exists in the Chinese community."
This year's sign is the black "sheep" of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. The sheep is seen as timid, weak, destined to be a follower -- not great attributes for superstitious parents who believe children will take on characteristics of their zodiac sign.
According to media reports, hospitals in China have witnessed a flock of people trying to avoid having a baby in the Year of the Sheep including expectant mothers having C-sections before the new year kicked in so their babies would be born in the Year of the Horse. Based on past sheep years, some clinics expect to see a 30 percent drop in babies this lunar year.
No one is quite sure how the sheep got its bad rap. Each zodiac animal is supposed to come with its own virtues. The dragon, horse, and tiger are lucky. The sheep – compassionate, creative, sweet, and thoughtful.
Several leaders were born in the sheep year including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
That is cold comfort for some parents still swayed by a centuries-old belief in China that only one out of ten people born in a sheep year will find happiness.
"For Chinese people I think its common sense they want to have a baby in the dragon, monkey, and pig years," pregnant mother Cheryl Cui said.
"Sheep year, I think, means bad luck."
Cui though is taking a pragmatic approach, hoping if fewer babies are born, her child will have an easier time getting into school and competing for jobs.
The government has been trying to debunk what it sees as an old wives' tale – with several articles in the state press. To counter any concerns, Amcare is promoting a "happy and beautiful" sheep delivery plan. Its slogan – "if you missed out on a dragon baby or a horse baby, it's nothing. The most important thing is don't miss out on a sheep baby."
The sheep is far from popular among parents and marketers. However, one industry that is taking advantage of the zodiac is the restaurant business.
Goat, mutton, and lamb is featured on more menus to ring in the year. Yum! Brands' Little Sheep hotpot chain is promoting its lamb bone hotpot. Some restaurants are offering whole goat grills while others are hard selling multi-course meals where every dish on the table is made from a part of the sheep.