Nian Myth

“So there’s this village that gets terrorized by this monster called Nian every year, and they all gathered and said “we’re sick of thai shit! We’re going to go hide in the mountains this year so Nian can’t get to us.” But then there’s this one guy who, last year, Nian got to his family, so he was like “I have nothing to lose, I’m going to stay here! I don’t want to go run, I’m tired.” And so he stays at home, but then, as Nian is approaching – as the day is drawing near – this old lady, who is later revealed to be a God, comes by and is like “I have a request for you: I need you to go hang up a red cloth on the door.” And this guy is like what the fuck why. And later on we found out it’s because Nian is scared of the color red but he [the man] doesn’t know that yet. And then she’s like “actually, I’m hungry, so I want to eat dumplings – you should make dumplings for me.” And he’s like “what the fuck why” but he can’t say no to a sweet old lady, so he goes to make dumplings. And the dumplings make a “dududududududu” sound as he’s mincing up the meat. He doesn’t know why he’s doing it but we find out that it’s because Nian is scared of loud noises, and that becomes the culture of making loud noises and setting firecrackers to ward off the Nian. And then Nian gets scared away, and they’re [the villagers] are like woah, this shit worked. And so this becomes a culture of how to keep Nian away.”

At this point, I asked to hear another version of the same story from a second teller. He began telling the story in a dramatic, kind of sarcastic impression of an old man. 

“A long, long time ago, there was a village in a deep forest in China. This village was terrorized by a monster called Nian everyday… I don’t know.”

We interrupted this moment to laugh at the mistake and correct the line. 

“Then, the village people angrily said “what do we do!?” Then, an old man from the corner says “you want to know how to defeat the Nian?” The village people said “yes, please old man. Please tell me!” And then, the old man says “if you want to defeat Nian, you must wear red colors. The Nian is very afraid of red. And you must also make big explosive sounds.” and the village people listened to the old man, and the next day, they all wore red and played with the firecrackers – “boom boom boom.” And the Nian, very scared, went “ooooooohhh, no red no!” The village people were very happy, and the old man was very happy too. The end.” 

Context: This story was told to me in a group conversation setting after I had requested for any myths, legends, or tales to be told to me. The first teller is a Chinese American student, and she attributes her knowledge of the story to her education in Chinese school as a child. The second teller is a Malaysian student, and he does not attribute his knowledge of the story to any specific source other than just the experience of growing up in Malaysia, as well as the experience of being a lion dancer performer in Lunar New Year celebrations. 

Analysis: This story is a well known Chinese myth that explains the traditions of the Lunar New Year, which as aforementioned involves wearing red, making dumplings, and other noisy forms of celebration. The monstrous villain of the story – the Nian – is the same character for the Chinese word for year, hence it may be explained that the original conception of the year may have come from the cycle of destruction by the beast. There’s an interesting contrast to be drawn between each iteration of this story told by each teller, given their different environments for learning the story. The first teller, who had learned of the myth from a more formal, academic setting, had a more detailed, intricate telling of the story that called back to the involvement of divinity, and an overall more precise version of the sequence of events. The second teller, on the other hand, had a relatively more simple telling of the story, with more drama put into the actual procedure of telling the story. While the differences in style could certainly be attributed to the different personalities of each teller, the contrast in levels of formality and detail can also point to their different ways they learned of the story. For the first teller, the story of the Nian has to be precise and structured in a way that can be accepted in an academic setting, while the second teller does not have the same restrictions and instead may choose to focus on a remember the core point of the story more so than the sequence of details.