MAGAZINE, FEB. 2000. VOL. 7 ISSUE 2
The Ancient Origins
of Chinese New Year
The origins of the Chinese New Year are too ancient to be traced.
However, there are some colorful myths to which the celebration
of this festival is attributed.
The Chinese New Year is now commonly referred to as the Spring Festival,
due to the fact that it marks the beginning of spring. Despite differences,
most legends agree that the word "nien"(meaning "year"
in contemporary Chinese(was originally the name of a legendary monster
which preyed on people on the eve of the lunar new year. According
to one version of this story, "Nien" had a very large
mouth which could swallow many people with one bite. Needless to
say, this was not an ideal state of affairs and caused great fear
throughout the land.
One day, however, an elderly man turned up and offered to subdue
the monster. This he did by posing a question to "Nien":
"I've heard it said that you are very capable, but are you
capable of swallowing the other beasts of prey on the earth instead
of people, who are by no means your worthy opponents?"
This obviously made sense to monster, as it instead began devouring
many of the wild things which had been harassing people and their
livestock. The old man, who turned out to be an immortal god, later
disappeared, riding off on the back of "Nien." Before
he left, though, he told people to put up red paper decorations
on their windows and doors at the end of each year to scare away
the monster, should it decide to sneak back. Red, he said, was the
color that "Nien" feared most.
From this time on, the conquest of "Nien" was remembered
by generation after generation. The term "kuo nien", which
can mean "survive the 'nien'," today means "celebrate
the new year," due to the fact that "kuo" can mean
either "pass over" and "observe." The legend
also explains the use of red paper around doors and windows and
the use of firecrackers (to scare "Nien" away) should
it show up again.
Of course, most people have forgotten these interesting stories
choosing, instead, to enjoy the celebration for its color and excitement.
Whatever the reason, it is without a doubt the most important festival
of the year for most Chinese.