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COMPASS MAGAZINE, FEB. 2000. VOL. 7 ISSUE 2

The Ancient Origins of Chinese New Year

The origins of the Chinese New Year are too ancient to be traced. However, there are some colorful myths to which the celebration of this festival is attributed.

The Chinese New Year is now commonly referred to as the Spring Festival, due to the fact that it marks the beginning of spring. Despite differences, most legends agree that the word "nien"(meaning "year" in contemporary Chinese(was originally the name of a legendary monster which preyed on people on the eve of the lunar new year. According to one version of this story, "Nien" had a very large mouth which could swallow many people with one bite. Needless to say, this was not an ideal state of affairs and caused great fear throughout the land.

One day, however, an elderly man turned up and offered to subdue the monster. This he did by posing a question to "Nien": "I've heard it said that you are very capable, but are you capable of swallowing the other beasts of prey on the earth instead of people, who are by no means your worthy opponents?"

This obviously made sense to monster, as it instead began devouring many of the wild things which had been harassing people and their livestock. The old man, who turned out to be an immortal god, later disappeared, riding off on the back of "Nien." Before he left, though, he told people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at the end of each year to scare away the monster, should it decide to sneak back. Red, he said, was the color that "Nien" feared most.
From this time on, the conquest of "Nien" was remembered by generation after generation. The term "kuo nien", which can mean "survive the 'nien'," today means "celebrate the new year," due to the fact that "kuo" can mean either "pass over" and "observe." The legend also explains the use of red paper around doors and windows and the use of firecrackers (to scare "Nien" away) should it show up again.

Of course, most people have forgotten these interesting stories choosing, instead, to enjoy the celebration for its color and excitement. Whatever the reason, it is without a doubt the most important festival of the year for most Chinese.

 

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