The legend of the ferocious beast called Nian

Nian © Adrian Cheah

"Nian"' in Mandarin means "year". However, legend has it that Nian was also a mythical monster that terrorised humans during the New Year. It was so fierce that it threatened to destroy the entire race of mankind.

At a loss about what to do, the Emperor summoned his advisors to find a solution to this looming armageddon. Having devised an infallible plan, the advisors approached Nian and challenged this all-powerful beast to prove of its invincible strength by destroying all other monsters on earth rather than to erase the humans who were obviously no match for it.

Nian took up the challenge and a year later, after its successful conquest, returned to the humans. It was giddy with power and nothing could stand in its way. Unfortunately, its desire to wipe out the entire human race was still prevalent.

Chinese New Year firecrackers © Adrian Cheah

However, just then, some children were playing firecrackers. The thundering explosions jolted the beast, prompting it to immediately slunk away. The humans were all surprised and started to rejoice. Since then, through generations right up to this very day, firecrackers are an integral part of the festivities of the Lunar New Year celebration. The belief they would scare away the last remaining evil monsters like Nian remains strong.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Another version of the story relates that Nian was defeated by an immortal god disguised as an old man who offered the ferocious beast the same challenge as the one above. After defeating the other monsters, Nian return to the old man.

“Old man, now your time is up and I shall enjoy devouring you!”, Nian spoke with a contented smirk.

“Okay, just wait while I remove my clothing. I should taste much better then”, retorted the old man.

So the old man took off his clothes to reveal his red undergarments. Nian, terrified of the colour red, Nian fled sparing the old man's life.

The villagers came out from hiding and once again enjoyed peaceful times. Before the immortal left, he advised the villagers to put red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year's end in order to keep Nian away, as it was terrified with the colour red.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

The phrase "Guo Nian" which means "Survive the Nian" became "Celebrate the Year"; the word "guo" in Mandarin means both "pass over" and "observe".

As an interesting trivia, red underwear is indeed fashionable among the Chinese community during the Lunar New Year. A popular belief is that those who wear red underwear during this festive period are considered lucky for a whole year. The auspicious red colour also stands for loyalty, success and happiness.

Lion dance © Adrian Cheah

The lion was believed to be the only animal that could wound the ravenous Nian. This gave rise to the lion dance, as the villagers of the story tried to mimic the lion in their attempt to frighten the beast away.

Lion dance © Adrian Cheah

Here in Penang, lion dance troupes travel throughout the state during the 15-day celebration of the Chinese New Year to chase away evil spirits and to usher in good luck at private homes and business premises, as well as hotels and shopping complexes. It is one of the more spectacular sights during this period, where performers balance on the shoulder of one another to reach for an ang pow (red packet filled with cash) tied to the top of a tall pole.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 28 January 2022