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Don't be a ‘goat' in year of the goat

Update: February, 21/2015 - 14:33
A painting depicts the goat to celebrate year of the goat. Photo

by Phuoc Buu

Vietnamese people are celebrating the New Year as the year of the goat, the eighth zodiac animal in the lunar calendar.

The goat represents a moderate and mild temperament, and thus people expect good and favourable things to happen during the New Year.

In Vietnamese culture, the goat is one among six domestic animals – the others being dogs, buffaloes, horses, pigs and chickens – and is not involved in any activity outside farms. The goat, therefore, does not have any place in history and culture, compared to the horse, last year's zodiac animal.

Local game

Even so, the goat is linked to the childhood of every Vietnamese child, thanks to the folk game of ‘bit mat bat de' (catching the goat while blindfolded).

Originally, the game included a girl, a boy and a goat within a fenced area. The blindfolded girl/boy had to try and catch the goat. The game, which is still played in some areas in the northern mountainous localities and the central Quang Nam Province, is fun for the audience as the girl and the boy often end up catching each other, instead of the goat.

The game was depicted in the folk paper paintings of Dong Ho Village in the northern Bac Ninh Province and Sinh Village in the central Thua Thien-Hue Province.

Children around the country today play the game, with one blindfolded child trying to catch the others within a circle drawn on the floor. The one who is caught by the blindfolded child is the next one to be blindfolded.

In the northern provinces of Ha Giang and Tuyen Quang, goat-fighting festivals are held annually in the lunar month of February for the entertainment of local people. The goats selected for the competition are strong, mature and male, and are categorised according to their weight.

The winner of each game is determined by the total marks the judges give in the form of kicks. In contrast to other animal-fighting events, the lives of goats participating in these games are spared.

The game of catching the goat while blindfolded is held in a mountainous village in Quang Nam Province. Photo by Nguyen Ba Ngoc on

In porcelain art

The goat has been featured in Vietnamese culture as sacrifices offered to gods in grand ritual ceremonies, and in paintings on porcelain items that Vietnamese feudal kings ordered from China.

The Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) emperors, for instance, had a platform for worshipping gods who were believed to hold the fate of the kings in their hands. Rituals held on the platform were of high significance and were conducted with very complicated procedures. The sacrificial animals had to be goats, cows and pigs.

Experts have not explained clearly how the animals were selected, but believe that they represented animal husbandry, together with agricultural products such as rice. The bodies of the animals, kept in the kneeling position, were disembowelled and grilled.

The offerings were made to thank the god for ensuring good weather for bumper crops.

Similar offerings are also made at grand annual ceremonies in traditional villages.

A painting on an old porcelain disk shows goats, referring to the idea of ‘tam duong khai thai'. Photo courtesy of Tran Duc Anh Son

On porcelain items, the goat appears in drawings that show three goats grazing comfortably or playing, representing good luck and happiness. The references were derived from the Chinese I Ching.

However, experts said that the reference, which is "tam duong khai thai" (meaning harmony from three ‘duongs'), does not have any relation with the goat. In Chinese, the word ‘duong' has two meanings, one being ‘yin' in the yin-yang theory, and the other being ‘goat'. "Tam duong khai thai" means the great harmony of the universe, as three references to ‘duong' create the word ‘thien' (meaning heaven or the universe).

Wood carvings showing goats being hunted by tigers are found on the outer wooden walls of communal houses of the ethnic Co Tu in the central Quang Nam Province.

Looking at wandering goats reportedly gives a feeling of peace. VNS Photo Phuoc Buu

The colloquial connection

The maximum reference to the goat (de) is in colloquial words used for sexuality, such as mau de (goat blood), rau de (goatee), de cu (old goat) and thoi de (goat habit), as well as de xom (goat harassment).

A person who is described as ‘de' is one who is interested in sex, gets it easily and says indecent things to the opposite sex or looks at them indecently.

While ‘de' is used for both females and males, ‘mau de' often refers to men. Both ‘de' and ‘mau de' have very negative connotations in the Vietnamese language. The word ‘de' is sometimes used as a verb for love making.

The description of ‘rau de' or goatee in Viet Nam is quite similar to other countries, but carries a different connotation. A man with a natural goatee is believed to have a strong inclination for sex.

Meanwhile, a ‘de cu' means a pervert, ‘thoi de' refers to a womaniser and ‘de xom' is used for those who harass others in public.

In Vietnamese culture, talking about sex in public is taboo, and public demonstration of affection such as hugging or kissing among people of the opposite sex is not widely accepted. Thus people often look down on those who are referred to with goat-associated terms.

Men still believe that the goat's sex organs are good for enhancing their own sexual prowess, so many often have them – even fresh goat sperm – in their meals or mix them with wine to drink, ignoring the potential risks to their own health.

Anyway, the goat is not an object of hate for the Vietnamese people, despite the various connotations. People continue to eat mutton as a nutritious food item. Many also feel a sense of peace while watching a herd of goats graze on a green field. — VNS

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