By William Wan
The Washington Post
BEIJING — Some people are born lucky. Parents in China, however, would rather not leave their kids' fate to chance.
For the past few weeks, many couples have been trying desperately to conceive, racing against time to have a baby in the fortuitous Year of the Horse. Their reasoning: No one wants a baby born in 2015, the dreaded Year of the Sheep.
Sheep are meek creatures, raised for nothing more than slaughter. Babies born in the Year of the Sheep, therefore, will grow up to be followers rather than leaders, according to some superstitions. The children are destined for heartbreak and failed marriages, and will be unlucky in business, many Chinese believe. One popular folk saying holds that only one out of 10 people born in the Year of the Sheep finds happiness.
Health professionals say fertility consultations have spiked in recent months. Some doctors even have expressed worries that there may be a corresponding jump in abortions later this year, as couples realize they missed the horse year cutoff. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the Year of the Sheep (also called goat or ram) begins Feb. 19, 2015, so the window for conception closes around the end of this month.
Many patients have inquired about early delivery via Caesarean section to ensure a horse-year birth, said Li Jianjun, an obstetrician at Beijing's United Family Hospital.
Some doubt the furor will have a notable impact on the Chinese birthrate this year. But the baby-mania is so widespread that the state-run China News Service issued a report trying to debunk the "unfounded" myth of bad luck for those born in Year of the Sheep.
"We try our best to dissuade couples from believing the sheep superstitions," one official at China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention said. The woman, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to give an interview, said the subject has become such a prominent issue that it's often addressed in classes for would-be parents.
But the medical professionals don't have an easy sell. The official said that even her CDC colleagues are obsessed with the supposed luck a horse year brings.
It's unclear how the Year of the Sheep came to acquire its bad reputation.
Each of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac has it virtues and faults. The undisputed favorite is the dragon, often followed by tiger and horse, which is associated with success.
Even rats (considered clever and agile) and snakes (which look like mini dragons) are considered lucky. But sheep have fewer advantageous qualities, according to some interpretations.
Those born in sheep years are thought of as passive, loyal, generous and kind. Some of those virtues may be wonderful in an ideal world, but not so useful in the dog-eat-dog real world.
"It's an unfair and outdated superstition," said Dong Mengzhi, 74, honorary president of Beijing's Folk Literature and Art Society. "But it's a convenient way for many to explain an unpredictable world."
Unfair or not, one of the first things Zhang Xiaolei's parents did when she got engaged in 2012 was sit down with a Chinese zodiac calendar.
"We all agreed to hurry up and avoid the sheep," said Zhang, 26, a government worker in Shangdong province.
Her husband quit drinking and started exercising in an effort to increase his fertility. Zhang went on a diet and got more sleep. But after a year and half of trying, nothing.
"I don't know what happened," she sighed. "Maybe it was all that pressure."
She and her husband — both born in a dragon year, the luckiest of all — have consoled themselves with the hope that, if they do conceive later this year, their baby will be that one lone sheep in 10 to find happiness.
Others who fear they will miss their window have flocked to support groups that have sprung up online.
While demographers acknowledge the Chinese zodiac's cultural importance, some have thrown cold water on the idea that it affects birthrates on a national scale.
Some Chinese provinces and hospitals have at times shown increases in births during lucky animal years and decreases in sheep years, but there is no discernible effect on national demographics, according to Duan Chengrong, a population expert who in 2003 published one of the only studies available on the phenomenon.
"It doesn't mean it isn't a factor," he said by phone last week. "But its effects are likely diluted and overshadowed by others."
Among the factors that have affected China's birthrate in recent decades, and complicated the interpretation of such data, are political and economic upheaval and the government's one-child policy.
In other countries, demographers have also grappled with theories of baby booms linked to specific events.
In the United States, for example, New York newspapers famously announced a boom in pregnancies after the massive blackout of 1965, during which couples supposedly had nothing better to do than procreate. But such a phenomenon was debunked in later years by population experts.
For those in China most schooled in the mystical arts of fortune-telling, all this attention to the Chinese zodiac calendar year is wasted.
"Ordinary people only care about the zodiac because it is much easier to understand than the truth. To us true feng-shui masters, the zodiac doesn't matter at all," said Wen Chaoliang, 39. "What matters most isn't the year you are born but the exact time of delivery."
Feng shui is the ancient art of arranging objects or numbers to improve luck.
For $500, Wen said, he's been helping couples pick the most fortuitous hours for their planned C-sections.
For an extra $130, he throws in a lucky name. For $3,000 he'll rearrange your home's furniture to ensure the best possible future for your child.
"Don't you want your baby to be successful? Don't you want your baby to be healthy and beautiful?" he said. "Think about it. Isn't it worth it?"
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Washington Post correspondent Xu Jing contributed to this report.