“There was this mythical beast that used to hang out in the bamboo forest, or the forest near a rural small town. And every year he would come up and cause a rampage, break the houses, eat everything and just cause a mess, eat humans, all these bad things. And they named the beast, Nián (年), because it comes every year, so his name is literally year. And so one day they realized when they were making lots of noises Nián gets scared of loud noises, so they started making really loud noises and they also learned that Nián doesn’t like the color red. So whenever the new year starts they would have explosions and fireworks and they’d make everything super red to scare away the beast. And ever since then he stopped bothering them.”
Background: The informant first heard this story from her mom when learning about the lunar festival.
This legend is often told during the Lunar New Year. It describes the origins of Chinese Lunar New Year traditions. When I first learned of the legend I was not told that the beast had a name. Though now thinking about it, the name, Nián, is fitting for the beast as it comes every year. Traditionally, people dress in red on Lunar New Year believing it will bring luck and wealth. People also set off fireworks and firecrackers to chase away bad spirits that may wish them harm. The legend has become a very important part of Chinese Lunar New Year traditions and has little variation despite its age. Often legends, myths, and tales have multiple variations from circulating around for such a long time, but this legend has more or less stayed the same.
Text: “死鱼正口，收杆就走” Translation: Grab the rod and go if you got a dead fish.
Context: This is a superstition that Chinese anglers believe in. The informant is an angler, and he learned this saying on the Chinese online forum of fishers. The dead fish is believed to be attached to the fishing rod by the water monsters(水鬼). If the angler keeps fishing, he will be the next water monster. To protect oneself, the angler must burn the paper money and prepare meat for the water monster, a ritual to appease the water monster. Although the informant does not believe in monsters, he still respects and shares this term with others. The informant is also sure that all anglers in China know this term as it’s a general term.
Analysis: As a well-known term, the saying has some practical meaning, while the ritual is a common way Chinese people deal with creatures that are not human beings. The saying itself, which warns anglers about dead fish, might be a cautionary saying. When one catches a dead fish, it might mean the water is contaminated, which causes the death of the fish. Thus one should stop fishing at that location and avoid eating the fish. The ritual of appeasing the water monster involves the Chinese superstition of offering food and money to things in another world. Burning paper money is a way to provide money to the dead, and it is believed that supernatural creatures can consume the food humans provide them. By “worshiping” the water monster, anglers can avoid being harmed by the water monsters.
Text: On Chinese New Year’s Eve, the informant’s family would start to make dumplings in the evening so they could eat the dumping at midnight. It is important to make sure that the dumplings are securely sealed so they won’t break down when boiling the pot. When the dumplings are cooked, the informant’s family will gather and eat the dumplings.
Context: The informant’s family makes eats dumplings every Chinese New Year’s Eve. The informant believes it is an important part of the New Year festival for her family. One important thing that she noted about the dumplings is that they must be made very carefully so the dumplings don’t fall apart in the boiling pot. She laughed at herself a bit and explained that it’s the reason why she doesn’t participate in the dumpling-making, as she sometimes makes dumplings that fall apart. Usually, the family members that are skilled at dumpling making are responsible for folding the dumplings. Also, although dumplings taste better with more fillings, the new year version has fewer fillings to ensure they don’t leak outside when being cooked.
Analysis: Many Chinese families have the tradition of eating dumplings (Jiaozi) in the new year, but the tradition slightly varies among each family. Some people eat dumplings for New Year’s Eve dinner; some eat them for New Year’s Day breakfast. The informant’s family chooses to eat dumplings at midnight, during the liminal time between the old and the new year. There is because midnight (11 pm to 1 am) is called the time of Zi in ancient China, and the character Jiao means intersecting and meeting. Thus, Jiao plus Zi became Jiaozi, meaning at time Zi the old and the new year intersects. It is also the synonym of Jiaozi or dumpling. Eating dumplings at midnight thus became a tradition. Dumpling means a lot to the Chinese. It is the shape of the Yuanbao, an ancient form of Chinese currency usually made of gold or silver. When making the dumplings, the extended meaning becomes creating wealth and luck. Thus, it is important that the dumplings don’t break, as they contain people’s wishes for the new year.
Text: The longevity noodle is a traditional part of Chinese birthday celebrations. When celebrating at home, the family would cook noodles that are just like the kind of noodles they normally cook, but it’s called the longevity noodle on birthdays. When celebrating at restaurants, the restaurants would provide the noodle as a gift to the persons celebrating their birthday. It is a simple dish that contains the wishes.
Context: The informant almost had the longevity noodle every year for her birthday. It is also a tradition that is commonly shared among the Chinese. When she went to other Chinese birthdays at Chinese restaurants or in their homes, they usually had noodles. It is especially important if people are celebrating the birthday of an elder. When eating noodles, it is best to swallow the whole strand without breaking it with chopsticks or teeth.
Analysis: The noodle is a symbol of longevity as it is long and thin. It reflects people’s good wishes for the person celebrating the birthday. As a birthday is related to the celebration of life, it is a good time to wish them a long life, especially for elders, who are highly regarded in Chinese culture. Both cooking longevity noodles at home and providing them as a gift at restaurants highlight the cultural importance of sharing food and hospitality in Chinese culture. It also shows how the tradition is passed down from generation to generation, as the informant almost had longevity noodles yearly for her birthday and others’ birthdays. This tradition of eating longevity noodles on birthdays reveals the cultural values and beliefs in Chinese cultures, such as respect for the elderly, hospitality, and longevity.
Text: “水滴石穿”. Water drops and penetrates the stone.
Once upon a time, there was an honest Mayer who caught a corrupt manager who took coins from the budget. The manager said, “It’s just a copper coin!” The Mayer said: “One coin per day, a thousand coins on the thousand days. The rope can saw the wood, and drops of water can penetrate the stone.”
Context: The informant heard this story when she was young. She did not want to do her homework because there were so many of them, and she didn’t know how to do it. Her parents used the four-character word to continue working, but she did not know the meaning of the word. Thus, her parents told her the story. Although the story did not convince her, she memorized it.
Analysis: All of the Chinese four-character words came from historical texts. Ancient history books included stories summarized into four-character words that teach a moral. This story also came from a four-character word, which means that small things build up; If people see wood with a rope every day, the wood will break; If water drops on a stone every day, the rocks will also be worn through. The idea that small things will build up and be impactful is present in many Chinese stories. Taoism has a similar saying, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step.” This reflects Chinese people’s belief that a small effort will make a big change.