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Legend of the Beast Nian: Chinese Lunar Festival Special

It’s already the time of the year. Bright crimson colors start to imbue every part of the city. Posters with bright red “gōng xǐ fā cái” sporadically emerge in every wall. Scarlet envelopes transfer from person to person. Dragons painted with vivid vermillion pigment dance around town. Every souvenir and gift shop seems to be more lively as more and more customers are stopping by. That’s only natural. This time is the season to be with family. 

Chinese New year, also known as Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival,  is the most consequential holiday in China. It is the most extravagant festival that usually lasts for three days. However, where did it start? How did this millennium-aged tradition come to life? Today, we will examine one story from the archaic past; the legendary origin of the Chinese new year.

Today’s story is not only about the origin of the Chinese new year. We are also examining The Chinese Character 年(nián)and how it came to be. 

The origin of Chinese New year

According to the legends, During the Han Dynasty, there once existed an evil beast called “Nian” (also known as “xī “). At the end of each year, Nian will rampage and attack towns. Every town unfortunate enough to suffer from its wrath experiences utter destruction. Nian will brutally slaughter everyone, down to its last member. As Nian continued its rampage, people noticed its weakness. They found out that Nian was afraid of fireworks, firecrackers, and red. They stuck red couplets, set off firecrackers, and lit lanterns to fight back. Consequently, they succeeded in fending off Nian. That’s where the custom of sticking red couplets, setting off firecrackers, and lighting lanterns for the New Year gradually formed.

Originally, Nian had nothing to do with fierce beasts. The character “Nian” was merely Oracle Bone Inscriptions in Shang Dynasty.

It consists of two parts: the upper part is a bunch of ears of the grain, which indicates that the grain has matured.

And the lower part is a person who bends down with his arms extended downward, representing a person who harvests crops or carries food.

The two means “people carry grain” or “people reap grain.” It means a bumper harvest of the year. At the end of the Han Dynasty, the writing of “Nian” had evolved. The writing is close to today’s “年”(nián).

Now that we are well-verse with both how traditional Chinese New year customs came to be, and how the character “Nian” evolved over  time, it is time to examine the knowledge points of this topic.

knowledge points

年(nián): the second tone.The time that the earth goes around the sun. It is closely related to the maturity of grain.

除夕(Chú xī ): New Year’s Eve. The transition from the old to the new year.

除(chú): the second tone. = alternate (The meaning in this phrase), eliminate ,except

夕(xī ):the first tone. = night

In Chinese legend, 夕( xī)is a monster. Therefore, 除夕(chú xī )this phrase has the meaning of killing the monster 夕( xī ).


Zhù nǐ xīn nián kuài lè!

祝 你 新 年 快乐!

Happy new year!

Zhōng guó rén huì zài chúxī wǎnshàng líng diǎn shí fàng biānpào.

中 国 人 会 在 除夕 晚上 零 点 时 放 鞭炮。

Chinese people set off firecrackers at 0 o’clock on New Year’s Eve.

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