The Tale of Nian

Background of informant:

My informant SS is an international student from Beijing, China.

The conversation was in Chinese.

Main piece:

SS: “Once upon a time, there was a village, and villagers were living happily together [Laugh]. One day, a monster whose name is “Nian” (means “year” in Chinese) came to the village and smashed people’s habitat. Something like that. People were so afraid of him. Nian came to the village and committed the massive destruction every year. Finally, the villager couldn’t bear Nian anymore, so they planned to fight back. I think, they went to ask help from an expert.”

SH: Aha!

SS: “This expert told the villagers to hang up red items on their house, like red Chinese couplets (Duilian), and also to light red firecrackers that has huge noise to frighten Nian. Because Nian was afraid of color red and loud sound. And the villagers did that and they successfully frightened Nian away. So every year in New Year Eve, which is the time when Nian comes to destroy, people would hang up red things and light firecrackers.”

SH: How did you know about this story? 

SS: “Elementary school textbook.” [laugh]


Context of the performance:

This is a section in our conversation about Chinese Spring Festival.


My thoughts about the piece:

When SS talked about the villagers went to find an expert, I reacted with an “Aha” since it reminds me of the help from a donor in Propp’s 31 functions.

The tale of Nian fits into Vladimir Propp’s 31 sequenced functions in tales. Just due to this performance that SS gave, it includes: 3 (Violation of Interdiction) –> 8 (Villainy) –> 9 (Mediation) –> 10 (Beginning Counter-Action) –>12 (First Fuction of the Donor) –> 14 (Receipt of a Magical Agent) –> 16 (Struggle) –> 18 (Victory).

Beside the structuralist approach to Nian’s story, I found the way that my informant learned about this tale somehow tricky. The tale was learned through “elementary school textbook”. Given the definition of folklore as the “official study of unofficial knowledge”, as since textbook, or school, or teacher are more as “official” concepts, this situation is problematic. And this is not the only case. During all of my conversations with Chinese informants, when I asked about how did they know about that folklore piece, the answer always has to do with school or other official institution.