Generally, Nian in Chinese means ‘year’. However, there is another meaning to Nian.
This is a popular legend on how Chinese come to celebrate Lunar New Year...
Long ago in ancient China, people lived in fear everyday. There were all kinds of monster-beasts on the mountains. These beasts not only feed on one another, but also bold enough to descend from the mountains and prey on live stock and human beings.
Nian was the king of these monsters. It especially loved the taste of human beings. Every household of the village lost at least a family member into its stomach. Not a single day passed without a funeral. The villagers were helpless. People started to leave, first one by one then family by family. It seemed that the village would become a ghost village before long.
One day, a forlorn-looking old man suddenly appeared among the villagers. Nobody paid him any attention. Perceiving the mourning look everybody had, and the obvious aging population, the old man made some enquiries. On learning the cause, he offered to subdue Nian and headed straight into the mountains, paying no heed to the warnings of the villagers.
He found Nian having its nap before heading to the village for its dinner. Nian awoke amid shouts from the old man, who dared it to hunt other species of beasts. This it promptly did. The inhabitants of monster-beasts reduced drastically, being either eaten or had the sense to take flight before Nian could get its claws on its game.
Now only left Nian and the old man. Nian turned hungrily to the old man……..
Dusk came. The villagers were expecting Nian to turn up at this time of the day, wondering which household would lose another family member, who would be the unlucky sacrifice.
Instead, they saw a meek Nian by the side of the old man, behaving for all the world like a master’s favourite pet.
The secret was revealed. Nian was frightened of anything in red, be it lifeless things like paper and cloth. The old man was actually an immortal who took pity on the villagers, and tamed Nian with his wisdom. Nian disappeared with the old man in a whiff. Both were not seen again ever.
A grand celebration was held. Villagers congratulated one another on a new beginning of life. Food was prepared, songs sang, dance danced, and firecrackers fired. Villagers put on bright red new attire, decorations were put up in red; people accredited red as a symbol of good fortune and fighting off evils. Celebrations lasted fifteen days. From then on, this tradition was passed on generation to generation.
From then on, the tradition of observing the conquest of Nian is carried on from generation to generation. The term "Guo Nian", which may mean "Survive the Nian" becomes today "Celebrate the (New) Year" as the word "guo" in Chinese having both the meaning of "pass-over" and "observe". The custom of putting up red paper and firing fire-crackers to scare away Nian should it have a chance to run loose is still around.
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