Informant: “So during Chinese New Year, there’s a fear of the evil beast coming. It’s called ‘Nian,’ which actually literally means ‘new year,’ so you’d say ‘oh new year is coming, the evil beast is coming!’ And um, he’s afraid of the color red, and he’s afraid loud noises. So then that’s why people use firecrackers, to scare off the evil beast. And the firecrackers are the kind that have a rope on one end and you light it, and then you have to hold it away from you and turn away like this (informant demonstrates) so it doesn’t blow up your face…And it’s really loud, and it’s really scary! It explodes and there’s like all these pieces of paper flying everywhere, and I hated them when I was younger. They were so scary.”
Me: “But I guess it was an important tradition, so you still had to do it and light the firecrackers?”
Informant: “Yeah, I did. And my parents would always try to take pictures of me while I was lighting one, but I really hated it. In modern times, though, they do have some where you just throw them on the ground, and it’s like a smaller explosion. It’s still loud though, so I don’t really like those either. And also, I hate them because boys, like teenagers, will throw them at girls’ feet, and like it would blow up and lift their skirts, and yeah, ugh, I hated it.”
This is a tradition that emphasizes red and noise as modes of protection. The color red is usually linked to dynamic tendencies and human vitality, while noise is an indicator of live presence. Both elements assert human life and agency, which is combined in the firecracker, thus enabling it to easily frighten off the evil beast or spirit, or anything nonhuman.
My informant did not particularly enjoy this aspect of the Chinese New Year, yet she was surrounded constantly by firecrackers during the celebration, showing that they are an extremely vital and crucial part of the holiday. Even if people do not necessarily believe in Nian, they will engage in the firecracker experience to demonstrate their excitement, or in the case of my informant, cultural and familial duty as her parents try to take pictures of her with the firecracker.
What was most intriguing in her narrative was the fact that boys would use the firecrackers to intimidate and possibly flirt with girls. This shows that the folklore is adapted in unique ways, depending on who is performing it, and has evolved. While it may not be polite or even safe to shoot the firecrackers at girls, it gives another dimension to the Nian-scaring tools and demonstrates that many elements of the Chinese New Year are being used in slightly different ways. The traditions may still be very strong and they way in which they are used can remain unchanged, but the same cannot be said for their meaning. My informant is proof of this, as she herself seems to cringe at the very word “Firecracker” and is likely not to use the original form, but a rather smaller and quieter firecracker in her future New Year celebrations.