In honor of Chinese New Year (aka the Spring Festival), I had originally planned on doing a review of Mr. Vampire coupled with a paragraph about the origins and traditions of the holiday. Up until now, I had never known that Chinese New Year is celebrated over the course of 15 days or that it doesn’t have a set starting date.
However, I noticed very something interesting during my research. Something interesting enough to make abandon my original plans: the claim that Chinese New Year’s origins are linked to a rampaging monster!
According to this Wikipedia entry, a monster called the “Nian” (sometimes called the “Nien”) used to ravage villages in China on the first day of each new year. People would leave out food for the beast in the hopes that would make it too full to eat anyone. After noticing that the creature was scared of a child’s red clothes, people started putting out red decorations around New Year’s. That, combined with setting off fireworks, drove the Nian away for good. The Nian would go on to be tamed and rode upon by a famous Taoist monk and the methods used to scare the monster became New Year’s traditions. In fact, the word “Nian” means “year” and the Chinese New Year’s phrase “guo nian” can also mean the “passing of (or “to survive”) the Nian.”
However, both that article and the Nian’s Wikipedia entry lack citations of any kind (unlike the facts I mentioned in the opening paragraph) and the accounts of the legend differ in each. The Nian entry claims that the beast feared red and gold colors and claims that lion dancing was started to help scare the beast away. The thing is, the lion dance originated in India! Even more confusing is how the same entry also says that the lion dance costumes are supposed to represent the Nian!
Growing more and more suspicious over whether or not this was a real legend, I did a little outside research. Good Luck Life: The Essential Guide to Chinese American Celebrations and Culture by Rosemary Gong certainly seems to confirm the double meaning of the word “Nian.” Mark and Olga Fox’s Time to Celebrate: Identity, Diversity and Belief provides a variation of the tale wherein an old man merely tells people to make a lot of noise in order to scare the Nian to death. Pages 69 and 70 of Ju and John Brown’s China, Japan, Korea Culture and Customs also have an “old man” (and not a child) responsible for learning the beast’s weaknesses. Perhaps the old man is actually the monk mentioned earlier, only with his title changed so that the story wouldn’t promote one religion over the other?
Finally, Hiss! Pop! Boom!: Celebrating Chinese New Year by Tricia Morrissey and Kong Lee provides yet another version of the story where the Nian is actually a disguised gang of bandits! The (false) claim that lion dancing was created to scare away the robbers is repeated here and fireworks do play a role. Unsurprisingly, the color red is not used to scare the thieves
On the other hand, Jonathan Bignell’s An Introduction to Television Studies notes that the color red symbolizes good luck in Chinese culture while Understanding China: Center Stage of the Fourth Power by Yan’an Ju and Yen-an Chü says that firecrackers are used to drive off spirits and bad luck of the past year. These two pieces of information provide non-Nian explanations for those Chinese New Year’s traditions.
So, is the story of the Nian an actual legend used to explain how the Chinese New Year? I really can’t say for sure, as it is possible for a story to have variations. All I do know is that it was a fun story and trying to learn more about it did teach me more about the holiday. Scrolling through the previously-linked book previews and articles should provide plenty of information to those who wish to learn more. Alternately, I recommend reading these selections from Food Culture in China by Jacqueline M. Newman.
Sun Nien Fai Lok!
Xin Nian Kuai Le!
Happy Chinese New Year!