What’s with the dragon?

Miranda Xu 2 February 2014

There are lots of stories about the origins of Chinese New Year. The most popular one is about a group of brave villagers who successfully fight off a monster called

‘Nian’, which translates as ‘Year’. According to legend, Nian attacked the village every year on New Year’s Eve. It ate all the livestock and killed children; for years, people fled their homes to avoid the monster. One day, an old man came to the village to beg for food. A granny warned him that Nian was coming, telling him to hide with her in the forest. The old man smiled mysteriously and claimed he could throw Nian out of the village. No one believed him. When evening came, the old man sat in the garden of the granny’s house, wearing a red cloak.

The door was covered with small red decorations and lights. After a time, Nian stalked into the village, approaching the house where the old man waited. Suddenly, there was a loud cracking of fireworks, which terrified Nian so much that he ran away. The old man came out of the garden, laughing together with all the villagers. Once people realised Nian was very afraid of the colour red and firecrackers, they were safe from him.

Now, at New Year, many of its traditions still reflect this story and its origins. Houses in China are decorated with red papers and beautiful lanterns, and red envelopes containing money are given as gifts for luck. Lighting fireworks has also become a Chinese tradition on this big day of family reunion and celebration, despite Chinese bans on the practice in the 1990s.

Nian is not the only dragon connected with Chinese New Year, though; lion and dragon dancing also takes place, accompanied by cymbals, gongs and drums to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. So really, it’s all about the dragon, a figure of power, wisdom and dignity, which winds its way throughout the story and celebration of Chinese New Year.