Are there really only 12 animals for the Chinese Animal Zodiacs?

07 September 2017 by Suyen Hu

Chinese people often don’t really care much about the translations for the 12 Animal Zodiacs because they don’t really know how Western children would feel for different kinds of animals. The most confusing thing is Chinese sometimes use the same characters for different animals, and it’s hard for us to think carefully how to explain the different animals with the same name. For example, Chinese call mouse, rat, mole, squirrel and even Guinea Pig 鼠 shǔ. But actually, a mouse is often called old mouse 老鼠, a rat is often referred to as big mouse that lives outdoors when a little mouse lives indoors. A mole in Chinese is called mole mouse 鼹鼠 yǎnshǔ, while a squirrel is actually called pine mouse 松鼠 sōngshǔ. Oh my goodness, all these animals for Chinese are kinds of mice or rats! How can we know a child would be okay to be a mouse but not a rat till we see or hear about their reaction?

When it was the Year of the Goat or Sheep or Ram, we were going to publish a story of Goat and another little story of Ram in the 12 Animal Zodiac books. The feedbacks were a bit scary for us to carry on publishing the books. A friend of mine asked happily what the story would be about for the Year of the Goat as she was born in the Year of the Goat or Ram or Sheep. She was happy because she loved to be a goat rather than a sheep. However, when another friend in the same room heard the story for that year would be about a goat she was a bit shocked and told us: ‘I think this book might be a disaster because in Western culture, goats are usually devils and bad luck. I don’t think many people would be happy to find out they were born in the year of a devil.’ This was shocking. However, in Chinese culture, we love goats rather than sheep sometimes because goats are clever, agile and ‘wise’ so we often have an image of a goat if we are trying to show a person who is wise.

Another friend in the room suddenly raised a new question with a puzzled look: ‘Can anyone here tell me why do you have so many different animals for the coming year? I can’t think of any relation between a goat, sheep and a ram.’ Okay, let me explain everything clearly here: In Chinese, a goat, sheep and a ram are all called 羊 yáng, therefore the Year of Yang could include all kinds of Yang with no confusion in Chinese language as a goat is called mountain goat 山羊 shānyáng, sheep is a kind of fluffy goat 绵羊 míanyáng and a ram is a male goat 公羊 gōngyáng, and a billy goat is called male mountain goat, 公山羊 gōngshānyáng. However, in English all kinds of Yang have their specific names and different people prefer to be different Yang. So without any easy explanation to non-Chinese, we just let everyone choose whatever Yang they like.

Another confusing story could happen to the Year of Niu. When people were choosing books for their children who were born in the Year of Niu, they got the book Golden Ox with no confusion. However, when they opened the book, children sometimes asked why the Ox in the pictures is so much like a water buffalo?! In Chinese language, a water buffalo is called Water Ox 水牛 shǔiníu and we call water buffalo, ox and cow Niu in general. So the Year of Niu can represent water buffalo, ox and cow.

Other animals like rabbit and hare in Chinese are all 兔子 tùzi. In Chinese 鸡 jī could be rooster, chicken or hen. I’m not sure how to explain all the animal names clearly for Westerners when they are looking for what animals they are, but it’s certainly an interesting way to know each other while finding out what characters we can be related to in our animal zodiacs. However, not only the Chinese translation for animals is confusing, sometimes it’s also funny to see why Tianzhu Mouse is called Guinea Pig in English and it’s weird to say I’m a Guinea Pig because I was born in the Year of the Mouse!

A little girl loves to be a mouse but not a rat!