Why do the Chinese named their New Year as ‘the passing of Nian’? Where do this ‘Nian’ even come from?

the passing of Nian

Cover Image via: China Culture Tour

Per folklore, a terrible monster called ‘Nian’ existed in ancient China. Its head bespoke a single horn, its mouth full of razor sharp teeth, its eyes are full of animosity, and it is very ferocious. ‘Nian’ lives in the bottom of the sea all year long, returning to land on New Year’s eve to feast on livestock and endanger the lives of locals.  Because of this, throngs of villagers flee to the mountains on the eve of New Year to hide from the monster’s wrath.

On one New Year’s eve, while Taohua villagers are moving up the mountains to escape danger, there came an old beggar. He has an elegant silver beard with eyes as bright as the stars. There was a staff in his hand and a bag on his shoulders. At that moment, the village is in a chaotic situation, with villagers hurriedly packing, chasing animals, and locking their houses. It was no surprise that no one would tend to the old man. Suddenly, an old lady approached him, gave him some food then advised him to flee together to the mountains to hide from the monster. Surprisingly, the man smiled and said:” You need not worry. If you would kindly let me stay in your house for a night, I would banish this foul monster.” The old lady was momentarily stunned at his response and took a closer look at the man. She noticed that he is hale, hearty, with an extraordinary bearing despite his age. However, she still advised the old man not to do so as she feared for his safety. At last, she had no choice but to cast the house aside and leave or the mountains.

At midnight, the monster arrived in the village. It noticed the village had a different atmosphere than before: the village elder’s house had a big red paper stuck at the front, and a sole candle could be seen from within. ‘Nian’ shuddered at the sight, and let out a terrible bellow. It gazed angrily at the house for some time, then suddenly roared while charging at it. When nearing the door, a series of explosions could be heard from the front courtyard. The creature immediately halted in its tracks, shivering in fright at the same time. It was found that ‘Nian’ is frightened of red color, loud sounds and bright flashes of light. At that moment, the door of the house swung open, and an old man wearing red traditional clothing exited the house. He laughed heartily at the creature, which hurriedly scurried away.

Next day, it is the first day of Chinese New Year. Villagers who returned from the mountains are shocked at the unscathed condition of their village. At this time, the old lady finally realized the weakness of monster and hurriedly informed the others. All of them went to the old ladies house and saw the red paper on her door, a pile of still-burning bamboo making loud noises, and her house is still lit. The jovial villagers became ecstatic and immediately proceeded to celebrate the arrival of another prosperous year by wearing new clothes and hats. They visited nearby friends and wished each other well. This news spread quickly to nearby villages, and soon many came to know about the technique to scare the monster away.

Every new year eve thereafter, every household started pasting red couplets on their doors, and lit firecrackers; at night, households are kept brightly lit, keeping guard attentively. Early next morning, it is a must to visit nearby relatives and friends. This culture gradually gained popularity and became one of China’s major traditional celebrations.


Translated from: 为什么华人新年叫“过年”呢?“年”的由来你知道吗?

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