Like all traditional festivals in China, Chinese New Year is steeped with stories and myths. One of the most popular is about the mythical beast Nian (/nyen/), who ate livestock, crops, and even people on the eve of a new year. (It’s interesting that Nian, the ‘yearly beast’, sounds the same as ‘year’ in Chinese.
To prevent Nian from attacking people and causing destruction, people put food at their doors for Nian.
It’s said that a wise old man figured out that Nian was scared of loud noises (firecrackers) and the color red. So, then people put red lanterns and red scrolls on their windows and doors to stop Nian from coming inside. Crackling bamboo (later replaced by firecrackers) was lit to scare Nian away.
He refused to hide in the mountains along with the villagers, but successfully scared away the monster by pasting red papers on doors, burning bamboo to make a loud cracking sound (precursor to firecrackers), lighting candles in the houses, and wearing red clothes. When the villagers came back, they were surprised to discover that the village had not been destroyed.
After that, every New Year’s Eve, people did as the old man instructed and the monster Nian never showed up again. This tradition has been continued until the present time and has become an important way to celebrate the arrival of the new year.
Chinese New Year’s Origin: In the Shang Dynasty
Chinese New Year has enjoyed a history of about 3,500 years. Its exact beginning is not recorded. Some people believe that Chinese New Year originated in the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), when people held sacrificial ceremonies in honor of gods and ancestors at the beginning or the end of each year.
Chinese Calendar “Year” Established: In the Zhou Dynasty
The term Nian (‘year’) first appeared in the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC). It had become a custom to offer sacrifices to ancestors or gods, and to worship nature in order to bless harvests at the turn of the year.
Chinese New Year Date Was Fixed: In the Han Dynasty
he date of the festival, the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, was fixed in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). Certain celebration activities became popular, such as burning bamboo to make a loud cracking sound.
In the Wei and Jin Dynasties
In the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420), apart from worshiping gods and ancestors, people began to entertain themselves. The customs of a family getting together to clean their house, having a dinner, and staying up late on New Year’s Eve originated among common people.
More Chinese New Year Activities: From the Tang to Qing Dynasties
The prosperity of economies and cultures during the Tang, Song, and Qing dynasties accelerated the development of the Spring Festival. The customs during the festival became similar to those of modern times.
Setting off firecrackers, visiting relatives and friends, and eating dumplings became important parts of the celebration.
More entertaining activities arose, such as watching dragon and lion dances during the Temple Fair and enjoying lantern shows.
The function of the Spring Festival changed from a religious one to entertaining and social ones, more like that of today.
In Modern Times
In 1912, the government decided to abolish Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar, but adopted the Gregorian calendar instead and made January 1 the official start of the new year.
After 1949, Chinese New Year was renamed to the Spring Festival. It was listed as a nationwide public holiday.
Nowadays, many traditional activities are disappearing but new trends have been generated. CCTV (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala, shopping online, WeChat red envelopes, and overseas travel make Chinese New Year more interesting and colorful.
The Story of Why Red Envelopes Are Given
During the Chinese New Year period, the married or the elderly give red envelopes to children or unmarried juniors. A red envelope is also called yasui qian (“suppressing Sui money”).
According to legend, on Chinese New Year’s Eve, besides the monster Nian, there was a demon named Sui that came out to terrify children while they were asleep.
It was said that the children who were touched by the demon would be too scared to cry out loud, and got a terrible fever and even became mentally unstable. To keep children safe from being harmed by Sui, parents would light candles and stay up for the whole night.
On one New Year’s Eve, in an official’s family household, the parents gave their child eight coins to play with in order to keep him awake, so as to avoid him being hurt by the demon. The child wrapped the coins in red paper, opened the packet, rewrapped it, and reopened it until he was too tired to fall asleep. Then the parents placed the packet with eight coins under his pillow.
When Sui tried to touch his head, the eight coins emitted a strong light and scared the demon away. The eight coins turned out to be eight fairies. From then on, giving red envelopes became a way to keep children safe and bring good luck.