Conquering the Beast

Posted on March 19, 2013

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Chinese New Year is popularly known as the Spring Festival because it starts from the beginning of spring (the first of the twenty-four terms in coordination with the changes of nature). Its origin is too old to be traced but several explanations are hanging around. All agree, however, that the word Nian, which in modern Chinese solely means “year”, was originally the name of a monster beast that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year.

One legend goes that the beast Nian would devour livestock and even small children. People were scared and dreaded this day. One day, an old man came to their rescue, offering to subdue Nian. To Nian he said, “I hear say that you are very capable, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on earth instead of people who are by no means of your worthy opponents?” So, swallow it did many of the beasts of prey on earth that also harassed people and their domestic animals from time to time.

Having subdued Nian, the old man rode the beast off into the sunset, never to bother the people again. He turned out to be an immortal god. Now that Nian is gone and other beasts of prey scared into forests, people begin to enjoy their peaceful life. Before the old man left, he advised people to decorate their homes with red paper and burn fire-crackers at each year’s end to scare Nian away in case it reappears. Red is the colour the beast feared the most.

Decoration

Through this legend, the basic Chinese New Year tradition was born. The term for New Year, Guo Nian refers to this tradition. It carries two separate meanings – passing over the year, and surviving the beast. The custom of putting up red paper and using fire-crackers to scare Nian away should it have a chance to run loose is still around. However, people today have long forgotten why they are doing all this, except that they feel the colour and the sound add to the excitement of the celebration.

Red Cloth

Other legends have contributed to the complex narrative of the Chinese mythology. As the poets, mystics, dynasties and epochs that spawn them come and go, the rich Chinese imagining of the world continues to evolve.

Come to think of it the fear of Nian still exists in modern society. The dreaded beast manifests itself as family feuds and bickering. On one hand, the underlying message of the New Year celebration is one of peace and happiness for family members and friends. On the other, this annual reunion is seen by many as a dreaded chore. For me, during previous trips home, this is where the story begins – emotionally anyway. This year had been different. I was prepared to conquer the beast.

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