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Top Five Chinese New Year Legends
1. The Horrific Monster Called Nian
Long ago, a horrific monster named Nian (年) terrorised the people of Ancient China. On the eve of every New Year, Nian would descend upon villages and ravaged all crops and livestock. Worse, any child trapped in the open during its arrival would forever disappear. To protect themselves from this menace, villagers boarded themselves up in their homes or fled to the mountains. Misery thus always accompanied the arrival of each New Year.
One year, just before Nian’s appearance, a sage strolled into a village. Not only did he decline to hide, he even managed to drive away the rampaging beast. The old man then revealed himself to be a god, thereafter which he taught the villagers how to use the colour red, crackling burning bamboos, and lit candles to scare away Nian. From that year onwards, the Chinese began wearing red, putting up red decorations, and burning firecrackers before and after the arrival of the New Year. Nian never again appeared. The great threat was forever subdued.
The Chinese character for Nian is incidentally the same as that for year. The Chinese phrase for celebrating the New Year is guo nian (过年), which translates to passing over the New Year. With reference to this story, the same phrase could also mean to survive Nian. Whether or not this monster truly existed in the past, the practices of displaying red and burning firecrackers continue to this day. In countries where firecrackers are banned, loud music and boisterous performances are used in replacement.
Chu Xi, Chinese New Year Eve
The Chinese name for the eve of the New Year is chu xi (除夕). Chu means to rid, while xi is an alternate name for the Nian beast. It’s obvious how this name came about.
2. The Rat and the Chinese Zodiac
The Chinese calendar is organised in cycles of twelve years, with each year also represented by an animal. There are various legends as to how this came to be. All involved animals invited to some sort of celestial tournament organised by the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven.
In one version, the Jade Emperor declared a race, with the first twelve animals to reach him to be crowned representatives of the years. The ox was in the lead during this race, easily able to cross the final obstacle, a river, by waddling across. However, the kind-hearted creature allowed the struggling rat to stand upon its head during this crossing. On seeing the Jade Emperor, the crafty rat leapt off and dashed to the god’s feet, thus winning the race. This resulted in the rat becoming the first animal to be featured in the twelve-year cycle. Each cycle therefore always begins with the year of the rat.
In another story, it was not a race but a tournament. During this, the mighty ox defeated all other animals but lost when fighting the tiny, extremely agile rat.
In yet another tale, the rat deliberately not informed, or misinformed, the cat about the date of the race. This resulted in the cat missing the opportunity altogether. Because of this, such a common household animal as the cat is not featured in the Chinese Zodiac. It also supposedly birthed the eternal feud between all cats and rats.
Whichever Chinese New Year legend it was derived from, the Chinese Zodiac was eventually determined in this order. Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Thanks to this custom, every Chinese New Year prominently features decorations and auspicious words based on the incoming animal. It also became common for Chinese to refer to the incoming year as the rat year, the rooster year, or the dragon year, and so on.
Not One, But Fifteen Days
Chinese New Year consists of not just one day but fifteen days in total. In Chinese speaking countries, only the first few are public holidays. But most Chinese will continue to feel festive right up to the fifteenth day.
3. The Seventh Day of Chinese New Year: Mankind's Birthday
According to an ancient Han Dynasty text, the first eight days of the Chinese New Year are the birthdays of different creatures. Man’s birthday is on the seventh. The seventh day is thus known as ren ri (人日). Literally, the day of man.
In other Chinese myths, the ancient Chinese goddess Nüwa created different creatures on different days of the New Year. Man was the seventh to be created.
Different geographical communities have different ways of celebrating the seventh day, though all celebrations involve the consumption of special dishes. In Southeast Asia, Chinese families gather to eat Yusheng (鱼生), a very colourful dish of raw fish slices mixed with over ten types of seasoning and pickles. At other places, longevity noodles or special porridges with seven types of ingredients are consumed. Whichever the dish used, the mood is always that of a symbolic celebration of life and companionship. This mood is naturally also accompanied by wishes for a healthy and prosperous year ahead.
4. The Birthday of Tiangong, the Heavenly Father
The ninth day of Chinese New Year is the birthday of Tiangong (天公), otherwise also known as the Jade Emperor. For the Chinese of the Fujian province, this is an important day of worship. Altars with a myriad of offerings are set up during the evening of the eighth day. Upon the arrival of the ninth day, i.e. around midnight, family members gather to offer sincere prayers to heaven.
Non-Chinese able to observe this ritual will surely notice the presence of sugarcane among the offerings. This is unique, for sugarcane is seldom used in other Chinese worship rituals. According to one Chinese New Year legend from the Ming Dynasty era, bandits raided a village in the Fujian province during the Chinese New Year period. Fearing for their lives, villagers fled into nearby sugarcane fields and prayed to heaven for salvation. There, they remained for a few days, with the bandits unable to locate any of them. On emerging from the sugarcane fields, the villagers realised it was coincidentally the ninth day of the New Year, i.e. the birthdate of Tiangong. The practice of offering sugarcane during the worship rituals thereafter began.
Note: The practice of worshipping Tiangong on the ninth day is not just found in Fujian province. In Southeast Asian cities like Penang and Singapore where there are large groups of Chinese with Fujian ancestry, the practice is observed too.
5. The Fifteenth Day of Chinese New Year: Yuan Xiao
The last day of Chinese New Year is commonly called Yuan Xiao (元宵). In recent times, Yuan Xiao has also been commercialized as the Chinese equivalent of St Valentine’s Day. This could be due to couples often venturing out during Yuan Xiao to enjoy the full moon together. It could also be because Yuan Xiao almost always falls within the middle of February.
The representative event of Yuan Xiao is the lighting up of red lanterns. This led to the day also known as the Chinese Lantern Festival in the West. As for the many Chinese New Year legends associated with Yuan Xiao, one goes that the Jade Emperor was furious with a village for killing his celestial crane, which had earlier flown down to Earth. In fury, he ordered his troops to set the village ablaze on the fifteenth day of the New Year as punishment. Sympathising with the hapless mortals, a daughter of the Jade Emperor warned the villagers and instructed them to hang large red lanterns, set up bonfires, and release firecrackers around the designated day of vengeance. Upon seeing the spectacle, the heavenly troops assumed the village was already ablaze and returned to the Jade Emperor. Despite knowing the truth, the Jade Emperor decided to forgive the village. From then on, Chinese celebrate the fifteenth day with the symbolic display of large red lanterns.
Another Chinese New Year legend goes that during the Han Dynasty, the famed advisor Dongfang Shuo (东方朔) encountered a weeping maid in the palace gardens. On inquiring, the maid introduced herself as Yuan Xiao. She also explained she was weeping for she despaired over never being able to see her family again. Determined to help, Dongfang Shuo set up a fortune-telling stand in the heart of the capital, masquerading as a doomsday soothsayer. He then foretold the fiery destruction of the capital on the fifteenth day of the New Year, as well as spoke of how on the thirteenth day, a female assistant of the God of Fire would descend to commence the burning. With his acting skills being quite remarkable, the people of the capital readily believed his prophecy. Soon, they were completely convinced of their doom, because on the thirteenth day, a grim fairy in red indeed appeared in the capital.
No one, of course, knew the fairy was just plain old Yuan Xiao. She was instructed to dress up by the witty Dongfang Shuo. Coldly, she handed a decree to the panicking crowds, one that stated that the capital was indeed to be burned down soon. Panicking wildly, the masses brought the decree to the emperor, who in turn turned to his favourite advisor, i.e. Dongfang Shuo, for help. The witty one then said.
“Your majesty, I was told that the God of Fire adores tang yuan (汤圆, rice balls). Doesn’t your maid Yuan Xiao make the loveliest tang yuan? You should instruct her to prepare some. No. Let everyone in the capital prepare tang yuan on the fifteenth day. Let everyone display lanterns and burn firecrackers too! The God of Fire would be so busy feasting on his favourite snack that he would assume our capital is already on fire. We would be spared this calamity!”
The terrified emperor immediately issued the orders, thus transforming the Chinese Capital, Chang’an, into a sea of red on the fifteenth day. Yuan Xiao’s parents, attracted by the “celebrations,” then visited the capital. Upon seeing lanterns with their daughter’s name on them, they yelled and were soon reunited with Yuan Xiao. With that, the crafty Dongfang Shuo fulfilled his promise to help. In the process, he also started a Chinese tradition and gave the fifteenth day of Chinese New Year a new name.
© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong