Born and raised in Malaysia, he is proud of his Malaysian and Asian heritage and likes to share its mysteries, culture & current issues.
Chinese New Year Legends
Chinese New Year legends are plenty and one of the best known is the story of Nian. It is the legend of why the new year is celebrated and why the Chinese celebrate it with a lot of noise.
It is also the story of why the red color is important for this festive season.
Chinese Monster Nian
So, let's check out the story of Nian, the monster beast that devours anything in its path and creates rituals that are passed down from generation to generation till today.
It can be a scary story for some kids so probably best told in the daytime and not for a bedtime story.
Who is Nian?
In ancient China, there was a legend of an ugly monster named Nian who lived in the craggy mountainous part of a small province of Shanghai.
It is so huge that its jaw can devour so many people in a single gulp. It has a massive head that resembles a lion but with horns and a body that looks like a bull with leathery skin and an enormous tail. It is a frightful sight, and the thoughts of this beast gave children endless nightmares.
The Nian Monster
Nian will roam the mountain and hunt for food, but when winter comes and all the animals hibernate or hide from the wintery cold winds, Nian has no food. So, he will descend the rocky mountain and prey on the nearby villages devouring whatever he can, including livestock and people, especially children. This always coincides with the lunar New Year and will happen every year.
So, to protect themselves, the villagers will flee to their secret hideouts in the rocky part of the mountain. The older villagers or those that are either sick or too weak to escape will stay behind. Since Nian is looking for food, they will place food at the front door hoping that Nian will eat, be satisfied and not break into their home.
Unfortunately, Nian gets more ravenous over the years, and his gluttonous nature can never be satisfied. He breaks in and attacks the villagers that stayed behind.
The Old Beggar
One day, as the villagers were busy preparing to go to their secret hideouts, an old beggar wandered into the village. Surprised by all the commotion, he asked what was happening. But the people were in great haste to flee and were so busy packing that they ignored him.
Fortunately, an elderly woman who was too tired to do any more work heard him and called the old beggar over to her place. She explained the reason for the racket and gave him some food. She also asked him to help pack her stuff and leave together with the villagers to the mountain.
Instead, he said it is unnecessary to flee as he knows Nian hates noise and is confident that it will drive the monster away. So, the old lady told the village headman about this. But he is unwilling to take any risk and says everyone must vacate their home and move to the secret hideouts before Nian arrives.
Since the old beggar insisted on staying behind to drive Nian away, she put him up for the night at her hut.
As Nian descended to the village, he was shocked and disappointed to find the place completely deserted. He could not smell any humans and animals and was about to turn away when he had a faint smell, a rather stinking smell actually, that he thought could be a human.
He slowly sniffed his way towards an old hut. Meanwhile, the old beggar was secretly watching Nian’s every single move, and as soon as the monster neared the hut, he started to make loud noises. He used every single item in the old lady’s home to create thunderous noises that sent jolts of fear and terror down the monster’s trembling body.
Fear of Red Color and Loud Noise
Adding to this fear and confusion, the old beggar swung open the front door and appeared before Nian, dressed in bright red clothes and waving and swinging whatever red-colored items he could find in the old lady’s home at the bewildered beast.
Loud noise and the color red were what Nian feared the most, and seeing all these in one happening, he quickly bolted to safety and was never to be seen in the craggy mountain area again. It is rumored that he was later captured by an ancient Taoist monk, Hongjun Laozu.
When the villagers finally descended back to their homes, they were surprised to see the old beggar was still alive and their houses were not destroyed. They also saw red colored paper framing the old lady’s front door.
Nian Monster Story
Subsequently, after everyone had settled down, the old beggar related the story of his success in chasing away Nian and told everyone that loud noise and red color would instill fear and drive the monster away.
Only then does it dawn on the village headman that the old beggar must be a Celestial being sent by Heaven to save and protect them. Later, someone said that the old beggar was Hongjun Laoz, the Taoist monk.
This amazing Nian monster story spread like wildfire across China, and people started to practice this ritual, and it became one of the most important festivals of the Chinese people. Nian, by the way, means ‘year’ in Chinese Mandarin, hence the Lunar New Year or commonly known as Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year Rituals
So, till this day, the Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year by setting off firecrackers, hanging red lanterns, wearing red clothing, and putting up red couplets (posters decorating the main door and walls expressing hope and happiness for the coming year).
This Nian legend of Chinese New Year is also a fascinating story for your kids.
New Words for Kids
In this story of Nian, there are a few new words that your kids might not be familiar with. I listed them below and gave their meanings (as per the storyline) for easy reference. Hopefully, they will learn from this vocabulary list.
- Legend: An old and famous tale from ancient times that may or may not be true.
- Devour: To eat up the prey quickly and greedily.
- Ritual: A practice that may be religious in nature and is done according to a specific order.
- Generation: Group of people who are born and living around the same time
- Ancient: Something that existed a long time ago in the very distant past and is no longer in existence.
- Craggy: Rocky, rough, rugged, and uneven.
- Province: A small part of a country.
- Coincide: Happening at the same time.
- Hideout: A hiding place.
- Commotion: Noisy disturbance.
- Racket: Similar in meaning to 'commotion'; loud and annoying noise.
- Thunderous: Creating noises that are as loud as thunder.
- Jolts: Causing something to move suddenly and violently; shake, jerk
- Bewildered: Confused, unsure.
- Festive: Relating to festivals such as Chinese New Year or Christmas.
- Gluttonous: Excessively greedy. A gluttonous person eats and drinks excessively.
- Taoist: Someone who follows the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which believes in simple living and having a balanced life that is in harmony with nature.
- Celestial: Heavenly, holy, saintly
Learn Chinese Mandarin
Here are a few simple Chinese Mandarin words relating to this story of Nian that your kids might be interested to learn.
- Chinese New Year greeting: Xin nian kuai le
- Old beggar: Lǎo (old) qǐgài (beggar)
- Old woman: Lǎo fù rén
- Beast: Shòu
- Red: Hóng sè
- Mountain: Shān
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Mazlan A
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on September 21, 2021:
Eurofile: Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Do you know that more than 1.4 billion people celebrate the Chinese New Year in China and more than 50 million from outside of China? Amazing numbers for any CNY-related merchandising!
Liz Westwood from UK on September 21, 2021:
This is an interesting and well-written article. I have learnt a lot about Chinese New Year traditions by reading it.