Thursday, February 19th is Chinese New Year Day. This year is the Year of the Goat, but the same character can also mean sheep or ram, so you have considerable leeway in deciding how to celebrate. These animals are very much a part of Chinese art, found in many forms and media, but even accepting all three alternatives does little to eliminate the possible confusion.
This ceramic goat with its raised head and happy expression looks like it might have been part of a set of Chinese zodiac animals. Its kneeling posture solves the problem of delicate, easily-broken legs, and details in blue give a lively dash to this relatively realistic animal.
Perhaps a garden scene is intended for this very deep architectural carving of two goats among various vases, pots, fruits and flowers, including a spectacular, out-of-proportion gilded chrysanthemum in the central vase.
A closer look at the right-side goat.
The corresponding bracket closely matches the first one, this time with two human figures displayed in a very similar garden. The figure on the left appears to be playing a lute; oddly, the central vase seems to be unfinished.
This charming small octagonal wooden bowl demonstrates some of the problems identifying animals in Chinese art. When fine details are not present, it is difficult to tell the difference between goats, deer, and other similar animals. Usually deer have branched antlers that stick straight up from the head, and are frequently depicted as spotted, while goats have unbranched horns of various shapes. This one seems just about in between, but let me know whether you think this represents a goat, a deer, or some other animal.
The adjacent panel is crisply carved with the character meaning East.
The above boxwood carving has some very unusual features. It is of a longevity god, holding a staff in one hand and his beard in the other, and at his feet is kneeling a goat. At least this really looks like a goat, with two unbranched horns close together. Yet the longevity god known as the Old Man of the South Pole is commonly depicted accompanied by a spotted deer. In this kind of naive artwork one expects to encounter many variations, both in what was intended and the way it is depicted, so in the end the viewer has to decide upon a plausible interpretation.
The back reveals the original function as a seal case or small box. The sliding cover that fit in those grooves has unfortunately been lost.
The above pair of very realistic and modern goats, down to their horns, hooves and even beards, appears on a carved window. This image is from the book Dong Yang Woodcarving by Hua, De-Han.
For sheep fanciers out there, this pair of once-gilded finials appears to depict sheep, but once again we are on a tangent of speculation. The cloven feet and fleecy wool are decidedly ovine, but the heads, while appropriately broad, are like nothing on this earth. They almost appear to have anteater-like snouts.
These is a sad story connected with these sheep. The last time that I moved, several boxes apparently didn't make it, and these were among the lost items. So although I still consider myself their owner, I do not currently possess them, and cannot double-check or re-photograph their features. I particularly regret their loss, since I have never seen anything to compare with them. I also admired their other-worldly charm and the quality of their carving.
Lantern Festival this year is sure to offer innumerable goat and sheep lanterns. This goat lantern, while not from a Goat Year, shows the effect that can be achieved. It is entirely made from empty Yakult containers, a type of yogurt drink, and I consider the tuft of grass it is eating a great added touch.
A bracelet with double ram's heads, in green stone, represents the third official possibility for the year's mascot. Although clearly not meant to deceive, it has the air of an archaic jade carving.
Finally, here is a modern interpretation, showing that the spirit of these animals has never left Asian art. These fluffy sheep, carved from mother-of-pearl, are actually chopstick rests that I recently found in a kitchenware store.
I hope that you are now in the mood to celebrate Goat Year. There are plenty of realistic and unequivocal portrayals in the goat-sheep-ram continuum, but as always seems to happen in Chinese art, one soon runs into gray areas. The only way to settle the issue is to let me wish you all: “Happy Year of the Goat, Sheep, Ram, possibly Deer, or any animal, real or mythical, that even vaguely resembles them.”
All photographs by the author, except as noted.