7 Chinese New Year Myths
We’re all familiar with myths, legends, and fairytales. It’s always interesting to see how they explain traditions that we still have in modern society today — the things we feel are normal, but are actually quite weird if we think about it.
So why do the Chinese celebrate the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) the way they do? Why do people put up red decorations and light firecrackers? Who chose the 12 Chinese zodiacs? What‘s the point of malt candy?
The stories date back to thousands of years ago. Here is a collection of a few popular and interesting Chinese New Year myths.
1, The Monster and New Year’s Eve
In ancient times, there was a monster named Nián (年). It usually lives at the bottom of the sea and comes up once a year to feast on animals and humans. On this day, the villagers would all escape into the mountains.
One year, a beggar came to seek shelter, but everyone was hurrying away. Only an old woman took him in and he promised to chase Nian away. He busied himself with decorating the homes.
At midnight, Nian lumbered in but stopped short when it saw the red paper on the doors. As it roared in anger, firecrackers suddenly sounded and it trembled in fear. When it saw the beggar, dressed in red, laughing at it, it could only run away.
The villagers came back the next day and were pleasantly surprised that the homes were all still standing. They realized that loud noises and the color red were Nian’s kryptonite.
This is why, on New Year’s Eve, families eat dinner in their homes fortified by red decorations. At midnight, firecrackers are sounded. In addition, people will wear new and festive red clothing to celebrate.
2, Evil Spirits and Poetry
One of the red decorations that Chinese people love is Spring Festival couplet poems (春聯 — chūn lián). They are pasted on both sides of the doorframe. And Nian isn’t the only monster that these poems protect you against!
More specifically, they guard against demons who wander around the human world at night looking for trouble. They must return to the underworld at dawn. Two gods guard the entrance, which is under a giant peach tree. Any demons that harmed humans during the night would be seized and fed to the tigers.
To safeguard their homes, people began to carve the gods’ names into peach wood tablets. By placing them outside their doors, they were able to scare the demons away.
3, Fortune has Arrived!
Another decoration is calligraphy. The most common word is fú (福), meaning happiness or fortune. But you’ll rarely see it upright.
It is said that in the Ming dynasty, the Emperor ordered every household to decorate by pasting fu onto their doors. On New Year’s Day, he sent soldiers to check. They found that one illiterate family pasted the word upside down.
The Emperor ordered the family to be punished by death. Thankfully, the Empress was there and came up with an explanation: “Upside down” (倒 — dào) is a homophone of “here” (到 — dào). When it’s upside down, it means that fu is here.
The explanation made sense to the Emperor and he set the family free. From then on, people would hang the word upside down, both for fortune and in remembrance of the kind Empress.
4, Origin of Spring Festive Wine
There are some drinks specific to the Chinese New Year. One of them is Tusu wine (屠蘇酒 — Tú sū jiǔ).
In one story, there was a plague going through villages, taking many lives. A man put some herbs, leaves, and grains into bags. He brought one to each of his neighbors, telling them to soak the bag in water.
They were to drink the water on New Year’s Day. And they found that this magical drink saved them from the plague. It became known as Tusu wine, named after the Tusu-structured home of the man.
No one knows if this story is true, but wine is often used as a part of traditional Chinese medicine. And it won’t hurt to take a sip of this rich drink during the holidays!
5, Origin of Red Pockets
According to legends, there used to be an evil spirit named Sui (祟). It would appear on New Year’s Eve and pat the heads of sleeping children three times. The children would end up with a fever. Even if they recovered from the fever, they’d never be the same again.
One couple entertained their child with some coins at night. When he fell asleep, they placed the coins on red paper and left it by the pillow. When Sui came, the coins flashed and frightened it away. From then on, parents would give children money wrapped in the red paper every New Year’s Eve.
6, The 12 Zodiac Animals
The Chinese zodiacs’ order was chosen by the Jade Emperor through a race. Many people wonder how the tiny Rat (2020 is the year of Rat) beat the others. Well, it’s because he’s a cunning fellow.
The 12 Chinese zodiac animals are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Cat and Rat were supposed to go together. But Cat overslept because Rat had slipped something into his tea the night before.
Then on the way, Rat ran into Ox and they struck up a deal: Ox would carry Rat while Rat would sing for him. With Rat’s encouraging singing, they quickly made it to the finish line. But just as they were crossing over, Rat jumped down and landed in front of Ox, in the first place.
Tiger and Rabbit arrived soon after. The Dragon could’ve been earlier, but he took a detour to save a village from a flood. Snake arrived at the same time, but he was too small to be seen at first. Horse and Goat traveled together, but Horse was a bit faster.
Monkey, Rooster, and Dog arrived together after helping a god in another country. Pig’s home was destroyed by a wolf and he had to rebuild it before joining the race.
7, The Swan and the Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival (元宵節 — yuán xiāo jié) is fifteen days after the Spring Festival. It marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations. As you may guess from the name, everyone lights lantern for this festival. It’s a beautiful night, but why lanterns?
As the story goes, a heavenly swan was killed by a hunter when it visited the human world. To avenge its death, the Jade Emperor planned to send his knights and burn the earth down.
The lesser gods were horrified at this plan and secretly went to warn the humans. On that night, the humans lit firecrackers and each household hung lanterns. From the heavens, it seemed like Earth was in flames. It tricked the Jade Emperor and humanity was saved from his wrath.
These six myths are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more interesting traditions and details about Chinese New Year. Dive deeper and learn more about this ancient and long-lived celebration! Wishing you and your family a great celebration during the Chinese New Year.