Legend – Hong Kong, China

Chinese New Year Story

“So, um, a long time ago, there was this really scary monster that lived on a mountain called… like, I guess you would translate it as Year Monster.  On the last day of every year this Year Monster would come down from his mountain to the nearby village and would terrorize this village… and so all the villagers were very scared every time it was new years eve.  And so.. on year, um, the villagers were, you know, getting ready to like run away from the village for one day in preparation for the coming of the monster.  But this old woman who could not move was left behind… and so she was really scared and so she was sitting in her kitchen and then at that time there was an old beggar who, in passing, asked the old woman for something to eat.  So this old woman gave him something and the beggar asked “why isn’t there anyone in this village? That’s really strange.” And this old woman told the beggar about the Year Monster and so after this beggar listens to her story, he laughs and says, “haha! Don’t worry! I have an idea” you need to prepare some red cloth and red paper to paste on the door and light as many lights as you can.” And so night fell and the Year Monster came to the village and the beggar sat in front of the door and burned bamboo canes which made piercing noises and the Year Monster was scared and he was rolling about on the ground and saw this red light that hurt his eyes and he cried, “oh this is so painful!” and he was so scared that he just went back to his home in the mountains.  The next day the villagers went back to the village and they were surprised to see the old woman still there.  The old woman told her what had happened and so in celebration of scaring away the Year Monster, everyone started calling the day that the monster was supposed to come down in the village, “passing of the  year.” And so since then as a tradition, every year people would set off fire works and paste red spring festival cutlets on their doors.

This is a story told to the informant around the time of Chinese New year when she was growing up in Hong Kong.  She said that both her grandmother told her this tale, and they were also read a lengthier version in school.  We can see from the telling above that there are moments of hesitation where the informant is trying to piece together the sequence of events and details of the story.  The informant is in a transitional stage of life where she has not quite reached the status to be a teller of the story, but also has not been young enough to have it told her for quite a few years.  She expressed an excited nostalgia when recalling this story and quickly recalled more details… “Oh and then after they would read to us, we would all make red spring festival cutlets! And we would decorate them and write our calligraphy on them.”

The Year Monster in contemporary form: Chinese dragon

The other pieces of the story also serve as an explanation for other traditional elements of Chinese New Year celebration. The essence of the burning bamboo canes clearly remains with the rampant tradition of fireworks.  The informant could not emphasize enough the prevalence of the fireworks, “they’re going off ALL the time.  Everyone just gets used to it, it’s like the sirens of the emergency vehicles in Los Angeles except ALL the time.” Although in the actual practice of lighting the fireworks, there is no longer mention of the scaring away of the Year Monster.  The Year Monster itself remains in the form of the dragon and dragon dancing that is also a traditional part of celebratory practices.

It is interesting to note the unlikely heroism in this story.  The old, disabled woman and the beggar seemed to me a very unusual pair to be in the business of warding off terrorizing monsters.  When I inquired about this to the informant, she was struck for a moment as she had never thought of this before but was eventually able to recall an interesting parallel in Buddhist culture, she explained, “yeah that’s strange isn’t it… yeah actually now that I think about it, I remember there is something about in Buddhist culture, the Chinese equivalent of… spirits? No I guess more like angels, come down and pretend to be beggars to test people and see if they were kind.”  It seems the philanthropy of this old woman serves as model Buddhist behavior, whether the beggar was an angel or not, he repaid her generosity by saving her life along with offering future protection to the rest of the villagers.