Millions of people across China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and other countries around the world are today celebrating the Lunar New Year and welcoming in the Year of the Ox as part of an ancient custom that dates back at least 3,400 years.
The date of Chinese New Year, which is also called Spring Festival, changes every year as it is based on the lunar calendar. While the western Gregorian calendar is based on the earth’s orbit around the sun, China and most Asian countries use the lunar calendar that is based on the moon’s orbit around the earth. Chinese New Year always falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice.
While both Buddhism and Daoism have unique customs during the New Year, Chinese New Year is far older than both religions. Like many agrarian societies, Chinese New Year is rooted in the celebration of Spring. The New Year was likely the start of preparations for a new growing season. The whole purpose, in history, of creating a calendar or keeping track of time was to facilitate agriculture. It was important to know when to till the soil and sow the seeds.
However, the ancient Chinese calendar, on which the Chinese New Year is based, also functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the celebrations existed at least as early as 14th century BC, when the Shang Dynasty was in power, although some believe it started from as early as Emperor Yao and Shun (2,300 BC).
Chinese New Year 2021 is the Year of the Ox (Source: HstrongART / Adobe Stock)
The Legendary Nian
According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called Nian, who had the body of a bull and the head of a lion. It was said to be a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted for a living. Towards the end of Winter when there was nothing to eat, Nian would come on the first day of New Year to the villages to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people.
The villagers would live in terror over the Winter, but over time they learned that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the colour red, fire, and noise. So when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. They also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, Nian never came to the village again. According to legend, the Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk, and Nian became Hongjun Laozu's mount.
After Nian was captured, everyone had a big celebration and the ritual involved in banishing him was repeated the following year, and so the ritual was passed down from generation to generation and the custom of celebrating New Year with firecrackers, noise, and the colour red has persisted to this day.
Nian has the body of a bull and head of a lion (Source: Hayloskien / Adobe Stock)
Celebrating an Ancient Custom
Many modern-day celebrations trace back to the legendary story of Nian. Windows and doors are decorated with red colour paper-cuts with popular themes of "good fortune" or "happiness", "wealth", and "longevity." Red is the predominant colour used in the New Year celebrations. It is the emblem of joy, and also symbolizes virtue, truth and sincerity. On the Chinese opera stage, a painted red face usually denotes a sacred or loyal personage and sometimes a great emperor. On New Year’s Day people give gifts of money to friends, family, and colleagues in red paper envelopes.
It is a traditional practice to light fireworks, burn bamboo sticks and firecrackers and to make as much noise as possible to chase off the evil spirits as encapsulated by Nian.
Other customs and traditions include honouring one’s elders, which involves visiting the oldest and most senior members of the extended families. Often, the evening preceding Chinese New Year's Day is an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Some families may invite a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. In many cities, there are performances and dances which have been in existence for thousands of years, such as the royal heaven worshipping ceremony which was performed by emperors throughout history in Beijing to pray for the peace and prosperity of the nation.
Year of the Ox
The ox is the second of all the zodiac animals. According to legend, the order of the zodiac animals was determined by the Jade Emperor according to the order in which they arrived to his party. In ancient China, the ox was a highly valued animal due to its role in agriculture and plowing the fields. Its positive characteristics include being hardworking and honest.
People born in the year of the ox are believed to be honest and earnest. They rarely lose their temper or seek to be the center of attention. They are thought to be among the best leaders.
Featured Image: The legendary Nian
Article updated 12 February, 2021
By Joanna Gillan
The Story of Nian
Long ago in China there was a man-eating monster called Nian who for most of the time slept at the bottom of the ocean. However at the end of winter, on the last day of the lunar year, the hungry Nian would terrify everyone when he woke up to come on land to eat whatever he could find.
Nothing the people could do would stop Nian returning year after year. Many died trying to defeat the dreadful beast.
The only way the villagers could survive was to flee to the safety of the mountains every New Year’s Eve.
One year when everyone was hurriedly packing up to leave, a traveller arrived in the village looking for food and a place to stay. Just as he was thinking no one would help him, an old lady kindly offered him food and shelter. The traveller was so thankful for her generosity that he decided to share with her the secret of how to keep safe from Nian.
When Nian arrived in the village that evening all but the old woman’s house was in darkness. His mouth was watering as he approached her house at the thought of the tasty meal waiting for him inside.
Just as the monster arrived at her door he was frightened by deafening firecrackers that seemed to be exploding endlessly. He was fearful of the firelight inside the house and the red paper which the old woman had hung up. He ran back to the ocean in terror.
On their return to the village the villagers couldn’t understand how the old lady had survived. They asked her how it was that she had not been attacked by Nian. She explained that Nian was afraid of loud noises, light and the colour red.
From then on, each New Year’s Eve, the villagers wore red clothes and let off firecrackers making as much noise as possible. They decorated their homes with red paper and lit lanterns. Happily, they never saw Nian again.
Chinese New Year
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Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year, annual 15-day festival in China and Chinese communities around the world that begins with the new moon that occurs sometime between January 21 and February 20 according to Western calendars. Festivities last until the following full moon.
The holiday is sometimes called the Lunar New Year because the dates of celebration follow the phases of the moon. Since the mid-1990s people in China have been given seven consecutive days off work during the Chinese New Year. This week of relaxation has been designated Spring Festival, a term that is sometimes used to refer to the Chinese New Year in general.
The origins of the Chinese New Year are steeped in legend. One legend is that thousands of years ago a monster named Nian (“Year”) would attack villagers at the beginning of each new year. The monster was afraid of loud noises, bright lights, and the colour red, so those things were used to chase the beast away. Celebrations to usher out the old year and bring forth the luck and prosperity of the new one, therefore, often include firecrackers, fireworks, and red clothes and decorations. Young people are given money in colourful red envelopes. In addition, Chinese New Year is a time to feast and to visit family members. Many traditions of the season honour relatives who have died.
Among other Chinese New Year traditions is the thorough cleaning of one’s home to rid the resident of any lingering bad luck. Some people prepare and enjoy special foods on certain days during the celebrations. The last event held during the Chinese New Year is called the Lantern Festival, during which people hang glowing lanterns in temples or carry them during a nighttime parade. Since the dragon is a Chinese symbol of good fortune, a dragon dance highlights festival celebrations in many areas. This procession involves a long, colourful dragon being carried through the streets by numerous dancers.
The Legend of Nian (Nián Shòu) & Connection to the Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year is an important, traditional Chinese holiday, but it is derived from the name of a ferocious beast in Chinese mythology, the nian.
The Chinese New Year (Nónglì Xinnián in pinyin), also known as the Spring Festival, is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. In the pinyin name, the “-nian” in there means “year,” but it is derived from the name of a ferocious beast in Chinese mythology. Keep in mind for the following story that the Chinese years are based on the moon phase and the time of the solar year it is a lunisolar calendar.
The new year would fall on different dates each year for many of us in the Western world, because we follow the Gregorian calendar. Basically, the Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the day of the winter solstice (shortest day/longest night of the year) it can (rarely) fall on the third new moon after the winter solstice if an intercalary month occurs. For this story, we’ll refer to it as the new year.
Here’s the legend of the nian, one of the most storied Chinese mythological monsters:
Legend has it that that in ancient times, a nian would come annually around the eve of the new year to the village (some say it was called “Peach-Blossom Village”) and ransack it in search of food, eating whatever it could get its paws on. The villagers were terrified of this beast and would hide in the mountains for safety.
One year, just before the nian’s expected arrival, an old man came to the village and told a certain woman he knew how to scare the nian away he asked for a place to stay in return. The woman told him that he was foolish to try to stay in the village when the nian’s arrival was imminent, as she didn’t believe him, and urged him to join her and the other villagers to accompany them into the mountains to hide. He refused, and they left without him.
The nian came, but the old man was prepared. He had posted red banners and lanterns on the doorposts of the woman’s home, which startled the beast, as it was afraid of the color red. It was also quite afraid of loud noises, and the man set off some firecrackers that he had set up around the area. The beast was terrified and ran away.
When the villagers returned from hiding, they were amazed to find the village still intact. Each year after that, they have put up red banners on their doors and lit fireworks to keep the monster at bay.
There are many variations of this legend of the nian. Some say that the old man also beat a drum and other noisemakers in addition to the firecrackers. One account of the story says that the man left before the villagers returned, and that they only learned of the proper scare tactics with the tools he left behind another says he stayed and explained.
The description of the beast also varies some say it had the body of a bull, the head of a lion, and a horn as a unicorn, and others say it resembled more-similarly a sea dragon. Despite all these slight differences, the gist of the story remains the same, and is why the Chinese New Year traditions are full of the color red, lights, firecrackers, and other noisemakers.
For more like this nian story of the Chinese legend, check out these posts:
Christian Eilers is a travel and career advice writer who constantly loves to learn about the world through traveling, cultural stories, reading, and education. A native of New York City, when he is not traveling, he can find an abundance of cultural influences right in his own city, enough to keep him satisfied until the next country's beckon cannot be ignored any longer.
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In Modern Times
In 1912, the government decided to abolish Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar, but adopted the Gregorian calendar instead and made January 1 the official start of the new year.
After 1949, Chinese New Year was renamed to the Spring Festival. It was listed as a nationwide public holiday.
Nowadays, many traditional activities are disappearing but new trends have been generated. CCTV (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala, shopping online, WeChat red envelopes, and overseas travel make Chinese New Year more interesting and colorful.
Chinese New Year – The Legend of Nian(年)
The Chinese new year began on February 12th. According to the Chinese zodiac and the lunar calendar, 2021 will be the Year of the Ox.
In Chinese, the character “year” is “Nian” (年), which according to Chinese mythology, is a beast. The story tells us that, at the beginning of each New Year, the Nian would come out of its hiding place. Finding food to be sparse in the winter, he would go into the village to feed on animals and people. Eventually, after the attack, the villagers discovered that the Nian was afraid of loud noises, fire, and the color red. Hence, people would put red lanterns and spring scrolls in their windows and doors. They wore red robes, hit drums, plates, empty bowls, and threw firecrackers. Their attempt to intimidate the Nian was successful and he no longer appeared around the New Year.
According to myth, an ancient Taoist monk, Hongjun Laozu, captured the Nian and became his mount. The villagers could finally ‘pass over’ or ‘overcome’ the “nian” for the New Year.
Today the celebration of the Chinese New Year holiday is called “Guo Nian”, meaning “pass over nian” or “overcome nian”. This reminds us of the Jewish holiday, Passover. Right before the Chinese New Year, people put the red New Year couplet upon the two doorposts and on the lintel, similar to the children of Israel putting blood on their doorpost and lintel so that Jehovah would pass over them.
Nian – A Lunar New Year Story
Some local legends attribute the Chinese lion dance to the legend of 'Nian.' (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Kukotaekaterina)
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There is a legend as to why during the Chinese New Year Festival doors are decorated with Chinese couplets on red paper, people wear red clothing, firecrackers are set off, and families make dumplings.
The legend started about 4,000 years ago, when there was a vicious monster known as Nian 年兽 (pronounced nián shòu) that ate people, crops, and livestock on the last day of every year.
People tried to fight the monster, but couldn’t succeed. The only way people could survive was to leave the village and hide in the mountains.
It is said that one New Year’s Eve when most people had already left the village, an old lady whose husband was too ill to move decided to stay.
As she was preparing food for her husband, a beggar knocked on the door and asked for food. The old lady felt sorry for him, so she invited him in, and gave him some of the food she had just prepared.
After eating, the beggar asked: “Why is there no one else in the village?” The old lady told him about Nian. “Don’t worry!” he said. “I can help you expel the monster.”
The monster has a weakness. He is scared of the color red. If you paint your village red, he will keep away. Light fires and the red and orange flames will scare him off. Set off noisy firecrackers and he will run away. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Jianyi Wang )
He borrowed some red paper and red cloth from her. He pasted the paper on the door, put the red cloth on himself, and sat outside the front door, waiting for the monster.
When Nian appeared, the hungry, grumpy monster approached the house, preparing to swallow the beggar.
The beggar started to burn the bamboo cane in his hand, and the cracking sound frightened Nian and made the monster so dizzy and scared that it fell against the door.
When Nian opened its eyes, it saw the bright red paper pasted on it, which made his eyes hurt like crazy.
At that moment, the old lady was chopping dumpling meat loudly in the kitchen. The sound gave Nian a huge headache.
Nian couldn’t stand it anymore and finally ran away. Suddenly, the beggar disappeared, and the surprised old lady realized he was actually a god.
When the villagers returned, they were shocked to see the old lady and her husband still alive. After she told them about her miraculous experience, they adopted the same methods to protect themselves from Nian every Chinese New Year’s Eve, and Nian has never returned.
Watch the video Nian – A Lunar New Year Story:
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Ancient Story Nian,the Horrible Monster Ancient China for Kids
Chinese New Year started many thousands of years ago. It is still celebrated today. It is a time for enjoying family and friends, for remembering ancestors, for feasting, and for giving gifts of "red envelopes" of lucky money. There are many ancient customs and stories that surround Chinese New Year. This is one of our favorites:
Once upon a time .
A long time ago, there was a monster named Nian. Nian loved to visit a little village in China each year, and scare everybody he saw. He thought that was great fun. He liked to do this just as the new year began, to remind people that Nian was still around. Each year, after scaring all the people, could hardly wait for the new year to roll around, so that he could scare them again.
This probably would have gone on forever. But one day, just by luck, one of the villagers was wearing a red tunic. When Nian jumped out to scare him, Nian took one look at the red tunic and ran away. He startled the villager so much that the villager dropped the heavy metal bucket he had been carrying. The bucket bounced down the hill behind Nian, hitting every rock in its path. It made a horrible noise. Nian looked fearfully over his shoulder, and began running even faster.
The villager told everyone of his fabulous luck. His red tunic had scared Nian. And the noise of the bucket had sent him running away. This was good news. All year long, the villagers prepared. When Nian appeared the following year, everyone in the village ran for the red banners and the loud rattles they had made. They shook their rattles and waved their banners. And Nian ran away. The villagers never saw him again.
That's why people in China believe the color red signifies luck, and why all the children and many adults shake rattles and light firecrackers and make all kinds of noise on Chinese New Year's eve. It's to scare away evil spirits, and even Nian, just in case he's still hanging around.
5. The 15th Day of Chinese New Year
The last day (i.e., the 15th Day) of the Chinese New Year is known as Yuan Xiao (元宵). In recent times, Yuan Xiao has also been commercialized as the Chinese equivalent of St Valentine’s Day. This is due to couples often venturing out during Yuan Xiao to enjoy the full moon together. It is also due to Yuan Xiao almost always happening within the middle of February.
The representative event of Yuan Xiao is correspondingly the lighting up of red lanterns, a tradition that led to the day being called 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 15th Day of the New Year as punishment.
Sympathizing 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 on 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 heavenly ruler decided to forgive the village. From that day onwards, the Chinese celebrate the 15th Day with the symbolic display of large red lanterns.
The Origin of the Name "Yuan Xiao"
An alternate Chinese New Year legend goes that during the Han Dynasty, the famed advisor Dongfang Shuo (东方朔) encountered a weeping maid in the imperial palace gardens.
When asked, the maid introduced herself as Yuan Xiao and explained that she wept as she was never able to see her family again. Moved and determined to help, Dongfang Shuo then set up a fortune-telling stand in the heart of the capital while masquerading as a doomsday soothsayer. To all, he foretold the fiery destruction of the capital on the 15nth Day of the New Year. He also spoke of how on the Thirteenth Day, a female assistant of the God of Fire would descend to the capital to commence the burning.
With Dongfang Shuo’s acting skills quite remarkable, the people of the capital readily believed his phony prophecies. Soon, they were even utterly convinced of their impending doom. Because on the Thirteenth Day, a grim fairy in red indeed appeared in the capital.
This fairy was, however, no more than Yuan Xiao in elaborate make-up the maid was instructed by Dongfang Shuo to put up a show. A formidable actress herself, Yuan Xiao handed a decree to the panicking crowds and declared the capital was marked for an inferno. Panicking wildly, the masses brought the decree to the emperor, who in turn turned to his favorite 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 favorite snack 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𠆚n, into a sea of red on the Fifteenth Day. Yuan Xiao’s parents, attracted by the lebrations,” 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.