Have you ever wondered about the origins of all the traditions we do for Chinese New Year? Like, why is the color red so important? Why are angpao considered lucky?
Everything that we do now began as stories that have been passed down for thousands of years. To celebrate our Chinese heritage and history, here are five Lunar New Year-related myths for you to enjoy:
1. The Origins of Chinese New Year: Nian the Monster
The concept of what we now know as Chinese New Year has to do with a horned and sharp-toothed sea monster named Nian (年), which translates to “year” in Mandarin. According to legend, Nian would habitually come ashore to terrorize villages, hunting humans and eating livestock as it pleased. Every single time it would do so was during the end of the lunar calendar, leading villagers to flee to the mountains every New Year’s Eve.
One day, everything changed when a strange old beggar visited the village. Though warned against Nian, the old man insisted on staying the night, decorating his house with red paper and lit candles, as well as creating crackling sounds with burning bamboo. He then donned red clothing and met the Nian with booming laughter, effectively scaring the sea monster away for the year.
Seeing the success of these efforts, the villagers followed suit, thus beginning well-known traditions that would be passed on to the modern age.
2. The Origins of “Upside-Down Fortune”
In order to express hopes for a good year, the Chinese often tack the character 福 (fú, good fortune) onto the walls and doors of their homes. Legend has it that this tradition stemmed from the quick-wittedness of an empress who saved an illiterate family from the ire of her husband.
There was once a time when Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, ordered every household of his kingdom to paste 福 onto the front of their doors. However, one family, due to their being unable to read, pasted the character upside down. Insulted, the emperor called for their execution.
The empress, wanting to avoid bloodshed, came up with a convincing explanation: Since “upside down” in Chinese sounds similar to “arrive,” doesn’t pasting the character in such a way mean that good fortune has come? Hearing this, the emperor conceded and released the family. Since then, the 福 character was pasted upside-down onto doors to both commemorate the good deeds of the empress and to attract good fortune.
3. The Origins of the Chinese Zodiac: The Twelve Animal Race
The legend of the Chinese Zodiac’s origins is one of the most popular Chinese myths in the world. The story begins when the Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven and the first emperor of China, decided to organize a race on his birthday and invited twelve animals to participate. As a reward, the animals were to be accorded the privilege of having their names listed in the zodiac cycle according to each of their respective ranks in the race.
After a series of collaborations, obstacles, and betrayals, the most prominent of which depicting the craftiness of the race’s unexpected winner, the animals finished in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
As promised, the emperor then used the results to confer each animal with a place in the twelve-year zodiac cycle. Since then, the Chinese have used the zodiac to predict fortunes according to the year’s animal sign. For 2021, the animal to arrive is the Ox, who is known for his steadfast, strong, and trustworthy nature.
4. The Origins of the Red Envelope: Sui the Demon
Did you know that your favorite red envelope of money can ward off demons? According to a popular Chinese myth, there once existed a demon named Sui, who would visit children every New Year’s Eve to do them harm. The fear that the children felt towards the demon would be so severe that it would cause an extreme insanity-causing fever. Because of this, the people would often pray to the gods for protection.
Such wishes were granted when a family one day decided to give their child eight coins to play with. When the child slept, the coins were then kept in a red envelope underneath his pillow. It was during that evening when Sui visited the child’s home.
Fortunately, things did not go as the demon had planned. Instead, when Sui tried to reach for the child’s head, a strong light emanating from the coins suddenly shone so brightly that Sui ran away in fear.
As it turned out, the reason for this was that the gods, in responding to the family’s prayers, had disguised eight guards as coins to protect the child. Since then, the tradition of giving children red envelopes to provide them with safety and good fortune began.
5. The Origins of Dumplings: Commemorating the Goddess Nüwa
Dumplings are one of the most popular dishes that are eaten during the Lunar New Year. One reason is that the dish is shaped like a gold ingot, which calls to mind wealth. Another reason is that it is used to honor Nüwa (女娲), the mother goddess of Chinese mythology.
In the beginning, Nüwa was said to have created one unique animal each day for the first eight days of the Chinese New Year. On the seventh day, she created humans out of yellow clay. However, she soon discovered that the ears she made wouldn’t be able to withstand the winter. To correct this, she sowed the ears in place and placed the thread inside the humans’ mouths.
Showing their gratitude for what Nüwa had done for them, the humans decided to stuff meat and vegetables into dough and shape them into ears. This is how dumplings came to be.