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Chinese New Year and the story of the Nian

Chinese New Year and the story of the Nian

Chinese New Year, in Western culture, is dominated by a fascination with the Chinese zodiac; people are often most knowledgeable about which animal represents their birth year. The fable of the race across the river, in which the order of the zodiac was supposedly decided by the Jade Emperor, is relatively well-known. However, the celebration itself, and its customs, originate in a much darker, lesser-known story: the story of the Nian.
The Nian was a mythical beast, said to have the head of a lion and the body of a bull, that lived in the mountains and stalked China’s rural villages. Regional variants of the Nian assert that it had similarities to unicorns or dragons, but a constant throughout is it’s ferocious nature and insatiable appetite. Villagers would live in fear throughout Winter, as the Nian emerged from the mountains annually at the end of winter, when there was no food left, and terrorised villagers; it had a particular taste for children. An old man appeared in a village one day, claiming to know how to scare the beast away and save the villagers. There are many differing accounts of how it was done, but ubiquitous throughout was the man’s knowledge that the Nian feared three things above all else: the colour red; fire, and blasting sounds. The man managed to either tame the Nian or scare it from the village. Although the villagers knew the Nian remained alive, they had no fear thanks to the old man’s revelations.


The story of the Nian has been challenged by political developments in China over the last century. The contemporary Chinese condemnation of superstition, continuing from the pre-Second World War modernising attempts of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang, views tradition as unnecessary and harmful to societal development. Beginning in 1949, under the rule of Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the government forbade celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year and followed the Gregorian calendar in a Westernisation attempt. Additionally, some people argued that the word ‘Nian’ actually meant ‘ripe grains’, and that the year calendar was (perhaps sensibly) based on maximising agricultural output. However, whether we believe in the Nian as beast or as grain, the traditions related to the beast remain prevalent.

In 1996, China instituted a weeklong vacation during the holiday, Spring Festival, giving people the opportunity to travel home and to celebrate the new year. Although it is reported that “for some members of the younger generation the holiday has evolved from an opportunity to renew family ties to a chance for relaxation from work (1)”, cultural tradition remains; red still signifies luck and fireworks still illuminate the sky. Whether this cultural revival was due to an increased tolerance of tradition due to the improved stability and entrenched nature of the Chinese Communist Party, or because of unaccounted annual disappearances near China’s mountains signifying the return of the Nian, is a decision to be made individually. Regardless, the celebration of the New Year, along with the traditions of red, fire and loud noises (through fireworks displays), continues. These traditions indicate the continued relevance of national cultural heritage to contemporary society; despite modernisation, actions are still taken annually which ensure, even if those acting are unaware of it, that the Nian is too frightened to return.

Oliver Holt is an intern at Culture Syndicates and is currently studying for his History MA.
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