Not everyone seemed so worked up about the distinction.
"I've never thought about that question before," Chen Xufeng, an office clerk in Beijing, told Xinhua. "Do we have to tell them apart? I've seen more goats in zodiac images, but I prefer to buy a sheep mascot, as sheep are more fluffy and lovely."
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The prevalent theory goes that because Han Chinese culture developed in regions where herders and goats prevailed, the zodiac talisman must be a goat. The animal is indeed common in traditional New Year art. But sheep have their proponents, and they have become more common in cutesy cartoonish decorations for the celebrations.
Zhao Shu, a folklore expert at the Beijing Institute of Culture and History, said in a telephone interview that the debate was silly. The creature in question arose as a general symbol of plenitude and good fortune, partly because the Chinese character yang shares roots with the one for auspiciousness, he said.
If English speakers are caught up on whether it is a sheep or a goat, that is their problem, Mr. Zhao added.
"This is ridiculous," he said. "Goat and sheep are different in French and English, but what's that got to do with Chinese traditional culture? In French, it's translated as the Year of the Goat; and in English, it's the Year of the Sheep."
He also drew a lesson about the virtues of Chinese tradition. "In Western culture, things are subdivided into more and more detailed categories, and that's why Europe has still not been unified after so many years," he continued. "If you want to say whether it's goat or sheep, then why not also ask whether it's a ewe or a ram? But Chinese culture has an inclusive spirit and stresses harmony."
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Mr. Zhao also scoffed at the widespread notion that to be born in the Year of the Sheep, or Goat, is bad news.
Sheep are seen by some as meek, doltish beasts. But Mr. Zhao said the unfortunate reputation of births in those years took hold in the late Qing dynasty, toward the end of the 19th century, when opponents of the dynasty vilified the Empress Dowager Cixi and several other high officials as schemers and traitors. They all happened to be born in the Year of the Sheep, or Goat, reinforcing the belief that people born in that year were not to be trusted.
"The people's personal hatred of them was transferred to views about the 12 signs," Mr. Zhao said. "But for Chinese people going back further in history, the sheep is really extremely auspicious. Our ancestors could never have put an inauspicious animal in the 12 signs."