Thursday 24 January 2019

KUNG HEI FAT CHOI - Happy Chinese New Year, by Saviour Pirotta

This year Chinese New Year starts on February the 5th.  It's the year of the pig!  Here's a legend that many Chinese children will hear many times in the coming days. It tells how the famous dragon dance became such an iconic part of the festivities.  It features the Nian, a terrifying creature thought to be one of the most ancient monsters in the world.

The Nian is believed to make its homes in hard-to-reach mountain caves in the remotest parts of China, or in caverns deep at the bottom of the ocean.  Since no one has looked at the terrifying Nian and lived to tell the tale, no one is quite sure what it looks like.  Some say it is part ox, part lion and part unicorn.  Others insist it looks like a giant lion but has horns on its head.  Yet others believe it is a massive hairy beast with small eyes that are always burning with rage.

Legend has it that every Spring the Nian used to creep out of its hiding place to devour livestock and people, usually children.  One year it stumbled across a small village were a wise man lived.  The hermit noticed several things about the Nian. It stayed away from people making too much noise, and it gave a child dressed in bright red a white berth. The monster hated noise, and was scared of the colour red!

At the next Spring festival, the people in the village were prepared for the Nian.  They had festooned their houses with red lanterns.  Red banners flapped at every door and window.  As the Nian approached, growling at the red lanterns, the gate to the mayor’s house opened and a dreadful, ear-splitting noise was heard.  A lion pounced out of the shadows, shaking its massive head and roaring. The Nian winced at the terrible racket. When the villagers leapt out of their houses, beating ladles and brooms on buckets and washtubs, he turned tail and fled.  No one, livestock or child, was devoured by the hungry monster that year.

The lion was, of course, the wise old hermit wearing an enormous mask, but the Nian had been fooled. Ever since then, the Chinese people have welcomed the New Year with a lion dance in which they make as much noise as possible, especially by letting off firecrackers.

In another, more humorous, variant of the myth, a famous monk called HongJun LaoZu, seeks out the Nian in its mountain lair.
‘Why don’t you eat the snakes that live in the valley instead of children?’ suggests HongJun, hoping the poison in the vipers would kill the Nian.  The Nian gobbles up the snake but survives. 
‘Now why don’t you eat the dragon on the other side of the mountain?’ HongJun says next.
The Nian survives the dragon too, despite the fire in its throat.  ‘Now little man, it’s time I ate YOU,’ it growls.
‘Just let me take my robe off,’ replies the monk.  ‘You don’t want the cotton to get caught in your teeth.’

HongJun peels of his clothes to reveal bright red underpants.  The Nian howls in fright and hastily backs off.  The monk hurries back to the village and instructs the people there to hang red lanterns at their doors and windows. Ever since then, people in China have considered red a lucky colour. And every New Year they give each other lucky money tucked inside a small envelope – a red one, to scare off the Nian in case it decides to come back….

KUNG HEI FAT CHOI - Happy New Year. Don't forget to love everyone, whether they are pigs, horses, cats or whatever.

Saviour is the author of Multicultural Stories from China and We Love Chinese New Year, both published by Hachette. His latest book The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad, published by Bloomsbury.
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Moira Butterfield said...

I never knew that! Thank you, Saviour. Italians wear red underpants on New Year's Eve by the way (you can buy them from street stalls on the day). Perhaps we should all do it, just to be on the safe side!

Susan Price said...

I enjoyed this post. Love the idea that nobody knows quite what the Nian looks like because they're too scared to look at it!

Saviour Pirotta said...

Thank you for your comment, Moira. Didn't know that about Italians wearing red underpants on New Year's eve. I knew they threw old furniture out of upstairs windows and had a bonfire. And they eat red lentils, which is meant to bring them financial good luck. Perhaps Marco Polo brought even more Chinese customs to Venice than we know.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Thanks for your lovely comment, Susan. That Nian is so elusive.

Penny Dolan said...

Lovely post! I shall think of these two stories next time I see a Chinese New Year celebration, Saviour.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Thanks, Penny. My lucky elder brother is in Beijing at the moment so he'll be taking part in the biggest CNY celebrations in the world.

Sue Purkiss said...

I never knew that! Fascinating - thank you, Saviour!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Marvellous! I've been in Hong Kong quite often for Chinese New Year but never knew the origin of those shiny little red envelopes. Thank you Saviour. Now can you answer why all the shops display tiny kumquat trees laden with fruit during Chinese New Year. Or maybe I could just Google this.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Thanks, Sue. It's a pleasure writing for this blog.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Dianne, it's because citrus have a shiny golden colour, which symbolises wealth. It's also why Italians eat cotechino, a dish made with red lentils. According to my Chinese sister in law, kumquat in Mandarin sounds like 'good luck'.