Among all the animals, the goat had the closest relationship with human beings in ancient times. The goat also has a deep historical relationship with the development of traditional Chinese culture, and it has had a great influence on the development of Chinese characters, food, morals, rituals, and even aesthetics.
Serving as the Main Food for Health Preservation
The legend of "the Five Goats Bringing the Grains" has spread since the Zhou Dynasty (1100 – 221 BC), when the ancient Chinese people had just entered a civilized society from the primitive times, although animal husbandry was well developed then.
A material base was necessary for the ancient Chinese nation to become a civilized society and progress was first made with animal husbandry, solving the problem of hunger for the people due to the tamed goats.
With the eating habits of the ancient Chinese people changing from fish to goat, mutton fully represented the development of Chinese food, so the goat became very important to the ancient Chinese people.
After mastering the methods of taming wild animals, the ancient people had surplus food, featuring meat from the five domestic animals (horse, ox, goat, chicken, and pig) as the staple food, and mutton has been considered a healthy food since then.
As a matter of fact, the traditional Chinese character "養" ("养" in simplified Chinese, literally meaning "health preserving" in Chinese) is composed of the radical "羊" (meaning "goat" in Chinese) on the upper part and the radical "食" (meaning "food" in Chinese) on the lower part.
The traditional Chinese character "膳" (a Chinese character that is borrowed to replace the modern simplified Chinese character "善") is composed of the radical "月" on the left part and the radical "善" on the right. The right part "善" is composed of the radical "羊" on the upper part, the two dots (meaning "two pieces") in the middle and the radical "口" (meaning "mouth" in Chinese) on the lower part, and it meant "two pieces of mutton (goat's meat) in the mouth"; as a result, the Chinese phrase "用膳" meant "eating mutton" in ancient times.
Symbolizing Etiquette and Ceremonies
China is known to the world as a country of etiquette and ceremonies. The traditional Chinese character "儀" (literally meaning "etiquette and ceremonies" in Chinese, and written as "义" in simplified Chinese) has the radical (the way by which a Chinese character is arranged in traditional Chinese dictionaries) of "羊" on the upper right part.
Not only did the goat serve as food for the ancient people, but it was also offered to God as one of the sacrificial objects. The goat was necessary in both Tai Lao (referring to the sacrifices offered by the ancient emperors which consisted of an ox, a sheep, and a pig) and Shao Lao (referring to the sacrifices offered by the ancient vassals and ministers which consisted of a sheep and a pig) during the Shang (16th century – 11th century BC) and the Zhou dynasties; what's more, the Tai Lao offered by the emperors had to be of a uniform color.
The traditional Chinese character "犧" (written as "牺" in simplified Chinese) also has the radical of "羊" on the upper right part, and it literally meant an animal of a uniform color for sacrifice in ancient times. Nowadays, it means making sacrifices for others, which fully symbolizes that the goat has made a great sacrifice for the progress of the Chinese nation.
Symbolizing Virtue and Happy Events
The Goat symbolizes pureness and preciousness due to its natural beauty. The original meaning of beauty originated from eating delicious food, so it was with this aesthetic sense from the ancient people that the form of the character "美" (meaning "beauty" or "tastefulness" in Chinese) is inferred.
The simplified Chinese character "美" is composed of the radicals "羊" on the upper part and "大" (meaning "big" in Chinese) on the lower part, and it literally means that "the big goat is beautiful", so the initial aesthetic sense of the ancient people came from the taste of mutton. In this sense, the adoration for the taste sensation is the source of the aesthetic activities for human beings.
According to the form of the character "美", another version of the origin of the Chinese character "美" comes from the people who wear goat horns while singing and dancing during their work or festivals.
From the perspective of the ancient people, the Goat symbolizes goodness, and a small goat was used as a comparison to the noble qualities of the ancient scholar bureaucrats in an ancient poem from The Book of Odes, The Goat.
Beauty shares the same meaning with goodness in the book, Origin of Chinese Characters, written by Xu Shen (58 – 147) from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220). What's more, goats are inclined to be gregarious according to Origin of Chinese Characters, and so it is with human beings.
Symbolizing Good Luck
The traditional Chinese character "祥" was borrowed to replace the simplified Chinese character "羊" in ancient times, and it means "good luck".
The ancient people usually hung goat heads on their door lintels at the beginning of the Spring Festival, and also sent goats to one another as gifts. Goats even served as the dowries for brides in ancient times, and it was said they would bring good luck to the couple.
Combined Words Containing the Chinese Character for Goat ("羊")
Both fish and goats are suitable for cooking because neither of them have an odor when used in cooking, which was something the ancient people had learned in their daily lives.
The simplified Chinese character "鲜" (meaning "freshness" in Chinese) is composed of the radical "鱼" on the left and the radical "羊" (meaning "food" in Chinese) on the right, and it means that the newly-cooked fish and mutton are very fresh. As a result, the ancient people's initial understanding for freshness started with fish and goats.
Chinese people often use the phrase "鲜美可口" (literally meaning "fresh and tasteful to the mouth") to describe delicious food; therefore, the characters "鲜" and "美" were often used together by the ancient people.
The simplified Chinese character "羹" (meaning "the mutton blending with five flavors" in the ancient Chinese language, namely sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, and salty flavors) is composed of the radicals "羊" on the upper part and "美" on the lower part, which refers to strong soup with meat, vegetables or both combined together as raw ingredients. Therefore, modern soup is derived from the ancient mutton soup in its initial meaning.
The ancient Chinese people learned the essence of seasoning when cooking the mutton soup by blending the five flavors perfectly as one; therefore, the attributes of delicious food and soup originated from the goat.