China is a nation known for its influential culture and rich history. It is interesting how they tell the origins of Chinese New Year myths and explain why age-old traditions are still practiced to this day. From the story of how the Chinese zodiac animals were chosen as to why malt candies are still relevant, Chinese New Year will teach you 10 Chinese folktales you should know about.
- 1 Nián: The New Year’s Eve Monster
- 2 Tale of the 12 Zodiac Animals
- 3 Couplet Poems and Evil Spirits
- 4 The Red Underwear Tradition
- 5 The Legend of Red Pockets
- 6 Calligraphy for Happiness or Fortune
- 7 Dumplings and Ears
- 8 The Origin of the Tusu Wine
- 9 The Stove God and Malt Candy
- 10 The Story of the Lantern Festival
Nián: The New Year’s Eve Monster
Nián is a Chinese mythological beast that lives at the bottom of the sea. On the evening before the New Year, Nián ascends from the water. According to Chinese New Year myths, Nián terrorizes villages and feast on animals and humans. Villagers would run to the mountains and seek temporary shelter in order to steer clear of Nián.
One New Year’s Eve, a beggar came to the village to seek sanctuary. The beggar promised to provide protection from Nián in return. Eventually, an old woman accepted his offer and invited him to her house. The begar started decorating the homes in the village, placing a piece of red Chinese New Year ornaments on doors.
At midnight, Nián came to the village. It immediately stopped as soon as it saw the red papers. The monster roared in frustration. All of a sudden, firecrackers started exploding and Nián trembled in fear. The old beggar came out, wearing red Chinese New Year clothes, to mockingly laugh at the creature as it fled the village.
The villagers returned the next morning and were pleasantly surprised that none of their homes were destroyed. From then on, before New Year’s Eve, people started fortifying their homes with red ornaments and lighting up firecrackers at midnight.
Tale of the 12 Zodiac Animals
The story of the 12 zodiac animals is one of the most well-known Chinese New Year myths. The order of the twelve zodiac animals was determined by a race arranged by the Jade Emperor.
Many wonder how the rat was able to finish ahead of faster animals like the horse, tiger, and dragon. It seems impossible to think that a tiny pest could beat out such tough competition.
How the rat was able to win
The rat used a mighty trait it had to its advantage – cleverness. Since the rat was supposed to go together with the cat, it slipped something into the feline’s tea a night before the race. The cat overslept and was unable to participate in the race.
On its way to the race, the rat met with the ox. The two made a deal: the rat offered to sing for the ox during the race. In exchange, the ox would carry the rat to the finish line.
The rat’s singing encouraged the ox to speed up. They crossed the line before everyone else. How did the rat end up being first? It cunningly jumped ahead of the ox just when they were about to cross the finish line!
The tiger and the rabbit then followed soon after. Instead of potentially finishing ahead of the pack, the dragon was delayed because it deviated from the race to save an entire village from a flood.
Finishing close to each other was the horse and the goat. The horse was just a tad bit faster than the goat. After its home was destroyed by a wolf, the pig had to rebuild its house before entering the race and, eventually, finishing last.
Couplet Poems and Evil Spirits
Throughout the Spring Festival, you may have noticed couplet poems written in long strips of red paper pasted on both sides of a doorframe. Not only does it represent the paper used by the old beggar to ward off Nián, but it also protects you from demons wandering our world!
When evil spirits roam our realm, they go through a passage under a giant peach tree guarded by two gods. These gods would punish any demon that harmed a human by feeding them to the tigers.
Frightened by these evil spirits, they started carving up the gods’ names into peach wood tablets. They would place these tablets outside their doors to scare off the wandering demons. Over time, the peach wood tablets were replaced by strips of red paper which we continue to see pasted onto doorframes today.
The Red Underwear Tradition
During your zodiac animal year, you are more prone to catching the attention of evil spirits. Similar to what the old beggar from the story of Nián, you can safeguard yourself by wearing red articles of clothing, particularly your underwear.
The Chinese also believe that the soul of infants can be taken back at any time before turning 100 days old. To prevent this from happening, parents would let their young children wear a lock pendant. If you don’t want your zodiac animal year to be clouded by bad luck, make sure to wear red underwear!
The Legend of Red Pockets
The origin story of the Chinese red pocket involves an evil spirit named Sui. On New Year’s Eve, Sui would pat the heads of sleeping children three times. The children would wake up the next morning with a fever that caused great worry to their parents.
One New Year’s Eve, a couple decided to gift some coins to their kid and left them by his pillow as he was asleep. When Sui came, the bright flash of the coins frightened the spirit. From then on, people started giving children money wrapped in red paper on New Year’s Eve.
Calligraphy for Happiness or Fortune
The visual art related to writing is another popular decoration found everywhen during the Spring Festival. The most common Chinese word written in calligraphy is fú, meaning happiness or fortune. If you are familiar with Chinese characters, you may have noticed that the word fú is rarely displayed upright when used as decoration for the Chinese New Year.
The origin story of the upside-down fú image
It is believed that during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor ordered every household to decorate their homes by pasting fú onto their doors. One illiterate family displayed the character upside down.
On New Year’s Day, the emperor sent soldiers to see if his mandate was obeyed by the people. The troops found the illiterate family’s poster. Outraged, the emperor ordered the soldiers to punish the family by death.
Fortunately, his empress aided to the family and came up with a clever explanation: the Chinese word for “upside-down” sounds exactly like the Chinese word for “here.” In other words, portraying the character upside down would represent that happiness and fortune are present.
The kindness of the empress convinced the emperor to set the family free. In remembrance of her compassion, people continue to hang the word upside down to this day.
Dumplings and Ears
While some people see dumplings as semblances gold or silver ingots, others say they look more like ears. The goddess and mother of all life Nǚ wā is said to have created humans out of yellow clay.
During the winter, Nǚ wā realized that the ears would freeze and start cracking because of the cold. She started sewing the ears in place and positioned the end of the thread in the mouth to solve this problem.
To express gratitude for Nǚ wā, people started molding the dough into the shape of ears and stuffed it with vegetables and meat. Every time you eat dumplings, remember Nǚ wā and be thankful that your ears don’t fall off during winter! If you’re into Chinese cuisine see our list of delicious Chinese New Year food!
The Origin of the Tusu Wine
Alcoholic drinks are a staple in the Spring Festival. One of the most famous drinks consumed during the occasion is
The man is said to have created a mixture of herbs, leaves, and grains and placed them in individual bags. He gave one to each of his neighbors and instructed them to soak the mixture in water and drink it on New Year’s Day.
The villagers later discovered that the drink was able to save them from the life-threatening plague. They named the wine after the Tusu-structured home of the man who gave them the bags. If you want to learn more about the Tusu wine, check out our article on popular Chinese New Year drinks.
The Stove God and Malt Candy
Introduced in one of the most well-known Chinese New Year myths, the Stove God takes charge of the people’s meals and livelihood. He is among the gods who interact with humans the most.
On the 23rd of Lunar December, just before the New Year, the Stove God ascends to the heavens to tell the Jade Emperor about how each family behaved throughout the year. He would soon return to Earth to either give out blessings or dole out punishment.
To please the Stove God, people started making malt candy gourds before the New Year and leave them out at night. The treats would either sweeten his palates and make him sing praises about the family to the Jade Emperor or stick his teeth together and prevent him from saying bad things.
If the Jade Emperor is pleased with how the Stove God talks about your family, you will enjoy plentiful food throughout the coming year! Also, check out our list of irresistible Chinese New year snacks and tasty Chinese New Year desserts!
The Story of the Lantern Festival
The origin story of the Lantern Festival involves a heavenly swan that was killed by a hunter. The Jade Emperor was displeased and planned on sending his knights down to set the Earth on fire. Upset with the Jade Emperor’s plan of vengeance, the lesser gods secretly warned the humans.
Humans started lighting firecrackers and hanging lanterns at every household at night to try and deceive the Jade Emperor. From the heavens, it appeared as though the Earth was on fire. The heads up from the lesser gods saved humanity from his wrath.
According to the Chinese lunar calendar, these holidays are mainly meant to honor our ancestors, our household items, and our gods/goddesses. During this time the family should dine together and keep the bond strong. The Chinese calendar was set on the lunar phases. The Chinese New Year starts with the New Moon and ends on Full Moon.
More about Chinese folklore
These ten Chinese New Year myths are just a fraction of all the interesting stories to be heard about Chinese folklore! Want to learn more about Chinese New Year traditions? Read our other articles and educate yourself about the age-old celebration.