Lunar New Year Origins

Context: the informant is a 21 year old USC student with two Taiwanese immigrant parents. She told me that this was the story behind Lunar New Year. I was unable to record her exact words, but I was given permission to paraphrase.

The story goes like this: a long long time ago, there was a village that was attacked on the same day every year by a monster named Nian, which is the Chinese word for year. Year after year, people would die and they couldn’t do anything about it. Somehow, the people found out that Nian was afraid of fire, and so before he came to attack the village that year, they hung up red lanterns, tapestries, and banners outside their doors, hoping the monster would mistake the red color for fire and leave them alone. That year, when Nian came, he saw the decorations and was frightened away; that was the first year that nobody died. Every year after that, on that specific day, they would put up red decorations, hang red lanterns outside the walls, and set off firecrackers at night to make sure that the monster would never come back. During the day, children would also be given red envelopes to put under their pillows for protection. After that first year Nian was driven away, he never came back, too scared of the red colors that he thought were fire. Now for Chinese New Year, everyone wears red and puts up red decorations as a tradition, but this is the way it started.

Analysis: From the definitions we work off of in class, this would be classified as a legend because, while it’s an origin story, it’s an origin story for a tradition rather than a people or a land. It’s clearly set in our world and isn’t necessarily sacred, so if anything, it would be a legend, considering its veracity cannot be verified and it seems like something that, though supernatural, has the potential to be true.

Considering the red is supposed to mimic fire, it seems in theory very similar to some points that Francisco Vaz da Silva made about chromatic symbolism. He argues that the use of the black/white/red tricolor symbolism was “part of a general encoding of cultural values in sensory based categories” and while his argument was in relation to womanhood, I would say that some of might still apply. Red, in his example, was more of a sign of blood or maturation in Europe, but he goes on to reference a paper on African color symbolism that considers red as associated with activity or life-giving, much in the same way that blood might function.

Here, it represents similar concepts — red is a marker of life-giving in the way that it is a symbol of protection and its presence means the continued existence of life. Fire, and by extension, red, are both connected to the idea of life, resulting in an association of fire with vitality. Fire also brings light, driving away darkness and fear, creating another association with life-giving and continued success/safety.

Fire is also among one of the first things children are taught about (usually in the context of safety) and considering few things in nature are that color, I wonder if there’s more association of red with fire rather than blood for children who grow up hearing this story.