Tag Archives: tradition

Nián (年)


“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.


This “story” was from my friend; It is commonly told to children, including my informants and myself. Its structure is very simple, And variations were using different sentence structures to tell the same story. People would also connect different stories or sentences after the story to make it surprising. This story is simple, with only a few sentences, but it can be told in a loop.

When my informant asked her parents and grandparents to tell a story, they sometimes would perfunctorily tell this story and repeat it until my informant was bored. This story is also used between children to bother and tease each other until they are bored.

Main Piece:
Translation: Once upon a time, there was a mountain. Inside the mountain, there was a temple. Inside the temple, there was an old monk. The old monk is telling a story to the little monk. The old monk said: once upon a time, there was a mountain…

This piece of folklore has the interesting nature of being potentially endless. It is interesting that while people consider it to be boring, it is still told by people. One possible explanation of the story is that it imitates the monks praying. When monks prayed, they would read the sacred texts out loud. The texts are obscure, and the monks murmur when speaking, which sounds boring and endless to many listeners. Thus, the old monk in the story is telling a boring story to the old monk.

The Christmas Eve Nativity

Context :

W is my 17 year-old brother. He was born and raised in Utah, like me. Ever since he was little, he has participated in his family’s Christmas Nativity scene (yes, even now). His father’s side of the family is all Mormon and extremely religious, whereas his mother’s side of the family is atheist. Although W is not Mormon, he is expected to contribute to the nativity as part of the family.

Text :

“My aunt S makes us do the Christmas nativity every freaking year. We pick our roles out of a bowl and then get a costume. All the girls wanted to be Mary. Most of the boys didn’t care if they were Joseph. It’s kind of weird since we’re all cousins. It used to be fun when we were young cause we dressed up and put on a show for our parents. But we’re like, old now, so it’s boring. We literally just stand in the living room in front of the family while one of us reads the scriptures or whatever it’s called. But like we’re five so we can’t really read. My aunt B loves the nativity because she leads everyone in song. She always makes my sister (me) sing a song with her. There has never been a family Christmas without the nativity. My dad and his sisters did it when they were kids, too.”

Analysis :

Christmas traditions are popular with many American families, even those who aren’t religious. Though W grew up in an atheist household, his extended family is Mormon, who means they all take part in a religious tradition of putting on the nativity. The reason they put on the nativity, like many other Christian households, is because it’s a chance to reflect on the past. Their religion is centered around Jesus Christ, so since Christmas is a time to honor him and his “birth”, they nativity scene is put on tell his origin story. In order to keep the tradition going, the nativity is passed down through generations. In doing so, the children grow up with the notion that this is a normal part of their Christmas, and once they have kids of their own, they will pass it on. This is how traditions are created and kept throughout generation to generation.

Folk belief about changing teeth.


“When Children lose their teeth, they should throw the teeth up if they lose their lower teeth, and throw the teeth downward if they lose their upper teeth. This helps the child grow their teeth quicker.”


Mr. B is my friend in China. This is a part of his personal experience. His grandparents told him this piece of folk belief.


This is a folk belief of magic that exemplifies the wish for the fast growth of children’s teeth. There is a lot of similar folk belief that involves such movement in a direction correlated with one’s growth. One example is that if a kid jumps a lot, he would grow very tall. Also, the physical movements of objects seem to have a lot of symbolic meaning in folk beliefs.

In regard to Frazer’s principles of sympathetic magic, this teeth-throwing magic fits in the categorization of both contagious and homeopathic magic. It is contagious that the teeth are a part of the body of the action. Although the new teeth have nothing to do with the old teeth, throwing the old teeth higher seems to have a magic force that will help the new teeth grow faster. On the other hand, it is homeopathic because throwing downward or upward is similar to growing teeth downward or upward. The differences are that one is by nature, the other by force, and one is new and one is old.

From legend to myth: the Legendary figure of Guanyu and the God of loyality and courage


The informant shares a legendary figure that later transformed into a god with mythic characteristics. The context of this legend takes place during the Three Kingdoms period in China, around the years 220-280. This is a period of upheaval characterized by distinct individuals. The protagonist of the legend, Guanyu, is one of them, serving under the Shu dynasty. Other two kingdoms were the Wu Dynasty and the Wei Dynasty. It was a time when the three nations fiercely struggled for the orthodox king of China. Guanyu was a fearless warrior and was also the sworn brother of the king of Shu.


“Guanyu was captured by Lu Meng, a general in the Wu Dynasty. After he captured Guanyu, he beheaded him and sent the head in a box as a gift to Cao Cao, the king of the Wei Dynasty. He did this because at the time, Wei was the most powerful kingdom, and Wu wanted to befriend Wei to fight Shu. When Cao Cao opened the box, he found out that it was Guanyu’s head. The head of Guanyu jumped out of the box and tried to bite. It scared Cao Cao so much that his headache attacked. But regardless of the hostile relationship between Shu and Wei, Cao Cao admired Guanyu as a warrior of great courage and loyalty. He buried Guanyu with great honor and built temples in his name. Some say that it’s because Cao Cao was afraid of the fury of the Shu Dynasty for losing the King’s brother; others say that Cao Cao truly admired Guanyu. But that’s where the legend ends.

However, the myth of Guanyu starts there. Guanyu had been woven into Taoism and become one of the Taoist gods. He is the one that represents loyalty between friends and brothers. Many of the gang members in China would worship Guanyu as a sign of the bond between their members.”


The transformation of Guanyu from a legendary figure to a mythic god can be seen as a natural progression in the process of cultural storytelling. In folklore, legendary figures often embody the values and qualities admired by the society that creates and perpetuates their stories. As these values become more deeply ingrained in the culture, it’s common for these figures to take on a more divine or supernatural aspect.

In the case of Guanyu, his legendary status as a courageous and loyal warrior made him a powerful symbol for the values of loyalty and brotherhood. By incorporating Guanyu into the Taoist pantheon as a god, he became a representation of these values in a more profound and spiritual way. This transition allowed for a more profound connection to Guanyu’s virtues, as people could now seek his divine assistance and protection in their lives. Also, it becomes a mythtic figure because it teaches people how to behave in life and what to believe, without the fact that many people live up to the tradtions of Guanyu, he would remain a legend.

Interestingly, Guanyu as a mythtic figure was viewed differently in different groups. In Taoists, Guanyu was one of the four great protectors of Taoism. In Buddism, Guanyu was the Galan Budda, which resembles the chief of police in the world of budda. In the business world, merchants and ordinary people view him as Martial God of Wealth who save guard their wealth and good luck. Others view Guan yu as Guandi, God of war who controls over evil spririt of the world.