BEIJING — Chinese were seeing in the Year of the Sheep on Thursday, but with fortune-tellers predicting accidents and an unstable economy and some parents-to-be fretting over the year's reputation for docile kids, it wasn't exactly warming everyone's heart.
This animal sign, which comes once every dozen years, can be said to have an identity crisis. Known variably as the Year of the Goat, Sheep or Ram, the sign's confusion stems from its Chinese character, "yang," which broadly describes any of the ruminating mammals, with or without horns.
Many Chinese prefer to translate it as the "Year of the Sheep" because sheep are more cute and cuddly, and large sheep figures have appeared around the capital's shopping areas in recent weeks.
The goat, however, is more likely to be the original meaning because it was a popular farm animal among Han Chinese who started the zodiac tradition, Huang Yang, a researcher on the roles of sheep and goats in Chinese culture, was quoted by the official Xinhua News agency as saying.
Still, Xinhua is going with "Year of the Sheep" in its English-language reports rather than "Year of the Goat."
The United States also appears to be opting for the fluffier, more gentle animal sign, at least in the U.N. Security Council. A U.S. diplomat at a council meeting earlier this month wished China, this month's council president, a happy "Year of the Sheep."
During the seven-day holiday that started Wednesday, the world's second-biggest economy largely shuts down.
Many mainland Chinese tuned into the annual New Year's Eve TV gala Wednesday evening, and this year's mascot managed to achieve the problem-solving feat of not being clearly a sheep or a goat.
The previous year, the Year of the Horse, is generally considered to be an auspicious time — never mind that Asian airlines had a string of high-profile disasters.
Astrologists interviewed said this year would bring a volatile economy, more transport accidents and windy natural disasters such as tornadoes in the United States and typhoons to Southeast Asia.
For China, which doesn't get tornadoes, that means air pollution, "coming in with dirty air currents and affecting everyone's lives," said Shanghai-based astrologer Dong Jialing.
"In around June, when it's getting hot in China, the Western economy will fluctuate quite a lot and will be very unstable," Dong predicted. But August or September will mark the start of a very stable economic period.
Feng shui master Clement Chan, who appeared on "America's Next Top Model" as a guest judge in an episode filmed in Macau, said he sees a lot of fire this year, and "fire means accidents." He anticipates plane crashes in the first half, but not as many as in 2014. He also sees a lot of road accidents.
On the positive side, he sees female managers and company leaders doing well this year. "I think you'll see a lot of female world leaders — they'll achieve something great, actually," Chan said.
A Hong Kong brokerage that publishes a tongue-in-cheek annual feng shui report, "more for your pleasure than profit," said the Chinese territory's Hang Seng stock index is likely to see some volatility as its rooster character clashes with this year's sign.
The CLSA brokerage warns that people will be easily annoyed and difficult to deal with, so it's "a good year to be on guard and not get fleeced."
The brokerage also speculates on the fortunes of celebrities. Jackie Chan's actor son Jaycee, released Friday after serving a six-month sentence on drug-related charges, has the zodiac sign of a dog and will benefit from slowing down and learning more about himself, it said.
People born in the yang year, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Zhang Ziyi, traditionally are believed to be filial, kind-hearted and artistic, while also timid, obstinate and consummate worriers.
The Chinese character "yang" is present in other characters with positive meanings, such as "beautiful," ''auspicious" and "goodness." Still, some superstitious Chinese find the year inauspicious and believe that sheep babies will be unhappy and more likely followers than leaders. Some parents say they'll avoid having a child this year.
Dr. Meika Chin, a midwife at Shanghai United Family Hospital, estimated births in the coming year would be 20 percent below the average, with many couples saying "they're going to skip the Year of Sheep and have the baby the year after."
It was possible to induce births early to avoid the sheep year, Chin said. "We always say it's the end of the horse year, rush hour, you know, they want to get in."
One woman attending a prenatal class, and due in late February, said she doesn't pay much attention to the zodiac.
"Lots of people think sheep babies' lives will be very tiring and they have to work hard, so lots of people try to avoid having sheep babies," said the mother-to-be, who would only give her surname, Li.
"But that means my baby won't have as much competition, which is great."
AP journalists Paul Traynor in Shanghai, Angela Chen in Hong Kong and Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this report.