Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sheep/Goat/Ram vs. Cousins


Today is the first day of the “Yáng” year. The word “yáng” in Chinese may refer to several different animals in the Western sense, ranging from sheep, goat, ram, to even gazelle. Brits and Americans are both lost in translation. Actually this is not the only Chinese zodiac sign that would cause confusion. “Shŭ” can be rat or mouse, “Niú” can be ox, cow, or bull, and “Jī” can be chicken, rooster, cock, or hen…

The Chinese language may be vague in terms of animals. But when it comes to people, it’s extremely complex and specific. In English, all non-sibling relatives of the same generation are call “cousins,” while in Chinese there are 16 types of cousins. In the West, male relatives of the parents’ generation are all called “uncles” and females all “aunts.” But there are 15 types of uncles and as many as 21 types of aunts in a Chinese family, depending on whether the person is related to the mother or the father, as siblings or through marriage, older or younger.

This certainly reflects traditional Chinese family values, where extended family members are still closely connected and hierarchy is well respected. We can also understand this as a result of different worldviews. Western traditions focus more on the relationship between mankind and the outside world. The narrative of Western civilization is the story of man understanding nature with science and enhancing it with technology. Chinese traditions are more about relationships between people, and the civilization is better represented by social and cultural achievements. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century when “Mr. Sci” finally arrived in China. That’s why Western thinking tends to be more direct, simple, and objective, while Chinese culture is a bit ambiguous, sophisticated, and subjective.


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