While you’re busy giving out or receiving red envelopes, decorating the house with fresh flowers, visiting temples and spending time with loved ones this Chinese New Year, revisit Chinese myths and impress your family and friends with your knowledge of these ancient stories
Chinese New Year is next month, which means it’s also time for annual festivities and traditions. With the earliest written records of China found from 1250BC, and the origin of Chinese New Year dating back to over 3,800 years ago, numerous Chinese folklore has been passed on and told as stories to kids from a young age over the years––oftentimes to teach an important life lesson about family and compassion.
Here, we're listing five Chinese New Year related myths and stories for you to retell to your family and friends over the holidays.
Chinese New Year Origin: Legend of Monster Nian
Ever wondered how and where Chinese New Year originated from? The festival all started when Nian (which means “year” in Chinese), a terrifying sea monster with sharp teeth and horns left his home and went ashore around the time of Chinese new year. The monster would hunt people and eat livestock at nearby villages, causing people to flee their homes and head up to the mountains during this time.
Things finally changed when a god, disguised as a wise old man visited the village. Refusing to hide from the monster, he decided to decorate his house with red papers, create loud crackling noises by burning bamboo, and wearing red clothing and lighting candles to scare away monster Nian. His methods proved successful and Nian never appeared again, thus beginning the Chinese New Year traditions of wearing and decorating with the colour red and lighting firecrackers.
The Chinese Zodiac: The Race of the Animals
The Jade Emperor, a well-known figure in Chinese mythology, is the ruler of heaven and known as the first emperor of China. He organised a race on his birthday and invited twelve animals to take part in it. As the prize, a year in the zodiac will be named after each one and the race would determine the order of each animal.
The large river was the final obstacle of the race, and when the ox and the rat were about to cross, the rat persuaded the ox to let it sit on the ox’s head to cross the water. As the two neared the finish line, however, the rat dashed to the finish line, becoming the first animal in the zodiac and the ox became second.
Then followed the tiger, which was slowed down by the river. For fourth place, the rabbit hung on a floating log to avoid being swept away by harsh waves and was brought ashore thanks to the dragon’s breath. The dragon, who stepped away from the race to extinguish a fire at a nearby village therefore won number five . The horse was slightly behind from the dragon and was about to be placed number six when the snake slithered off from its leg, causing him to lose his balance—and the sixth place. The snake took sixth place and the horse was placed seventh.
The goat, monkey and rooster teamed up together to make a raft to cross the river. The goat ran to the finish line, followed by the monkey and the rooster. The dog, the eleventh animal in the zodiac calendar, got distracted by the water and decided to play in it and lost track of time.
The story could’ve ended here, as the emperor almost gave up on waiting for the pig. The pig had gotten hungry during the middle of the race and stopped for a bite to eat. Which of course, was followed by a nap. After it finally woke up, the animal finished the race and was placed twelfth.
Red Packets Origin: Legend of Demon Sui
It seems like there were an awful amount of demons and monsters in ancient China. If you love receiving red packets during Chinese New Year, you’ll have Demon Sui to thank. In the myth, Demon Sui would arrive on the night of New Year’s Eve to harm children. Children were so terrified of the demon that instead of crying, they would come down with a fever so severe that it’ll lead to mental instability.
To protect the children from the demon, parents would light candles and pray to gods for protection. One day, a family decided to give eight coins to the child to play with and keep him entertained. When the child fell asleep, the parents placed the coins in a red paper underneath the pillow. The same night, Sui visited the home of the child but when it tried to touch his head, the coins emitted a strong light and scared the monster away.
Turns out, the gods heard the prayers and sent eight guards disguised as the coins to protect the child. From that moment onwards, the tradition of giving red envelopes to children to keep them safe and bring good luck began.
Spring Couplets Origin: Door Gods, Shentu and Yulei
According to stories, there was a peach tree located in the East China Sea that also acted as the gate to the ghost world. Two gods, Shentu and Yulei guarded the entrance and fed ghosts and demons who harmed humans to tigers, which kept ghosts from harming humans whenever they visited the mortal world.
It was believed that just the image of the gods could dispel demons who ignored the gods’ warnings. Therefore, people began to use peach wood to make puppets of the gods and placed them at the entrance of their homes. In the Han dynasty, people simplified the tradition and switched to drawing portraits of the gods on peach wood boards. Then, as time went on, the names of gods on the wood boards were replaced by written blessings on square red papers, much like the ones we see today.
Dumplings Origin: In Honour of Goddess, Nüwa
Nüwa is known as the mother goddess of Chinese mythology and is celebrated for creating humanity and repairing the order of heaven and Earth. The goddess created a different creature on the first eight days of Chinese New Year, and on the seventh day, humans were born.
Nüwa was said to have created humans out of yellow clay. However, after realising that the ears would not withstand the cold in the winter, she sowed the ears in place and put the thread in the humans’ mouths. To thank Nüwa for the creation of humans, people shaped dough into the shape of ears, and stuffed it with meat and vegetables. And that’s how dumplings were born.