The Lunar New Year is nearly here. For Chinese people–in both China and the diaspora–it is undoubtedly the most important event in our calendar and was traditionally a time to honour both traditional deities and familial ancestors. In Singapore, where I was born and raised, the historic enclave of Chinatown will commemorate the annual occasion with a street light-up that lines the district’s roads with beautifully-designed lanterns.
Chinese New Year is a yearly festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year in the traditional Chinese calendar. In East Asian countries, the festival is called the Spring Festival 春節 Chūn Jié. The Chinese utilise a lunisolar calendar that traditionally starts with lichun, the first of the twenty-four solar terms.
Like all momentous annual occasions around the world, the Lunar New Year marks the changing of the seasons–the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The observances begin on New Year’s Eve–the evening prior to the first day of the year–and continue on till the Lantern Festival which is held on the 15th day of the new year.
This year, Chinese New Year begins on 12 February and ushers in the Year of the Ox. The Ox 牛 is the second animal in the 12-year rotational cycle of the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese character 牛 niú which translates to ox; refers to cows, bulls, as well as the common cattle or water buffalo. Interestingly, Singapore’s Chinatown is known in Mandarin as Niúchēshuǐ 牛車水 which means “bullock water-cart”.
The Legend of Monster Nian
A long time ago–during ancient times–no one really knows exactly when, there was a ferocious monster named Nian with sharp teeth and horns. Nian would seclude itself in the dark pits of the sea for a long time and would venture onshore during the end of the lunar year to hunt people and livestock.
To avoid Nian’s impending attack, all the villagers would escape to the remote mountains before the lunar year took place.
One particular year, when all the villagers were getting ready to take refuge in the mountains, they came across a strange old man. He had silver hair and bright piercing eyes. He was dressed as a beggar in rags and walked slowly with the help of a walking stick.
The villagers were too caught up in their own plight and did not pay much heed to the old man who had come to visit them. After all, the villagers had far more important things to do–such as packing for their journey to the mountains. They also had to ensure that their homes were safely locked and that they had enough food and clothing for their journey to the mountains and back.
Luckily for the old man, a sweet and cute old granny decided to come to his aid. She gave him some food and warned him of the monster Nian. She was adamant in her attempt to persuade him to flee together with the rest of the villagers. The old man laughed and kept his cool. Instead of taking up her offer, he requested to stay one night as a guest in the old woman’s house. He claimed that he would expel the beast away as a reward for her hospitality.
The granny was an old lady who had seen too much of life and did not believe in the beggar’s promise. She continued to persuade him to leave with her. Alas, both the old man and the granny were very equally stubborn. They both blatantly refused to change their minds. We all know how our elders can be. In the end, the granny left for the mountains without the old man.
At midnight, like clockwork, the monster Nian broke into the village. Nian quickly sensed a subtle change in the aura of the village. In previous years, the entire village was shrouded in pitch black darkness. But this year, the house facing east was lit.
The monster Nian approached the house cautiously. When he arrived, Nian found all the doors and windows pasted with red papers and many candles were lit inside the house.
Nian trembled and whimpered as he scowled at the red papers and candles. Infuriated and overcome by rage, Nian swooped to the front door. At that very moment, loud cracking sounds emerged from the courtyard. It was a warning from the old man to Nian to not dare to come any closer. The old man smiled to himself as he realised that the infamous monster had finally arrived.
The old man chuckled as opened the front door. He emerged dressed in a red gown, howling with laughter. A deeply frightened Nian ran from the village and disappeared into the dark night.
The next day, the villagers returned to their homes. They were surprised by the tranquil scene at the village. The old granny, an incredibly perceptive lady, quickly realised that the relief from the monster was a result of the old man’s promise. She immediately rushed to tell the other villagers about the beggar’s promise.
The villagers were not so easily persuaded. They made their way to the granny’s house–their hearts and minds filled with suspicion and doubt at the sudden favourable turn of events. When they finally arrived at the granny’s house, they found red papers on the doors and windows, candles in the house, and an unburnt bamboo in the courtyard.
The villagers were filled with enlightenment as they discovered the truth. They came to the conclusion that the bamboo burning cracking, red colour and bright lights were magic ingredients to scare away the monster.
To celebrate the triumph and victory over the monster Nian, people dressed in new clothing and spread the word to share their joy. The story spread, and everyone adopted the means by which to defend themselves against the beast. Henceforth, on every Lunar New Year’s Eve, people paste red spring couplets, light candles, burn bamboos and set off fireworks to ward off all the evil spirits.
Many of the traditions of our ancient ancestors continue on today. According to the legend, Chinese New Year’s Day is also called Guo Nian which means surviving Nian’s attack. The colour red is the most popular colour for festival celebration and during the celebrations, many choose to dress themselves in the lucky hue.
This post is co-authored by Dipa Sanatani and Eugene Lee.