It's never a compliment to be called a sheep, an animal rarely associated with qualities like bravery, heroism, or intelligence. But in China, where the saying is "nine out of ten sheep are incomplete," it's a lifelong curse.
Woe betide children currently in the womb: the next Year of the Sheep begins on February 19, 2015, the Chinese New Year. To be born in the lunar Year of the Sheep is a serious and specific astrological condemnation: according to Chinese legend, "sheep people" are doomed to miss out on some major part of life, like family or career, which prompts parents to take their precautions.
One in two respondents to a survey in China say they know someone who has tried to avoid giving birth to a "sheep baby."
Pregnant women in China have been reported requesting Cesarean operations in order to ensure their children would be born before the unlucky year. Toward the end of 2014, reports the China Daily, the rate of childbirth in some Chinese maternity wards doubled as prospective parents hurried their kids out of the womb. The resulting pre-emptive baby boom so stretched municipal and administrative capacities that hospitals in Guizhou and Shandong provinces ran out of birth certificates, says China Central Television.
Astrology has prompted birth frenzies in China before: in the year 2000, for example, Chinese women gave birth to 36 million babies - compared to 19 million in 1999 and 17 million in 2001 - trying give their kids the luck associated with the start of the millenium and the Year of the Dragon. Six years later, the ministry of education appeared to panic that the country's primary schools might not hold all the little dragons that had reached school age.
To forestall major demographic shifts or maternity ward crowding, some hospitals even encourage giving birth in the year by providing discounts on delivery and vaccinations for "sheep" babies. Reads one advertisement:
If you have 3 sheep people in your family, you get 30% off.
If you have 5 sheep family members, you get 50% off.
If you have 7 sheep family members, you can give birth to your baby for free!
Perhaps persuaded by bargains like this, plus the possibility of a less competitive cadre for their children, some young parents must to be filling in the supposed birth gap, because Chengrong Duan, a Beijing People's University professor of population science, says he has found "no change of number of births just due to the Year of Sheep." Duan's data comes from China's census data dating back to the early 1950s. In the meanwhile, a few "sheep" like tech magnate Bill Gates, Cuban president Raul Castro, and Chinese premier Li Keqiang seem to have simply proven the stars wrong.
Illustration by Fanqiao Wang.