To most people, the beginning of a New Year promises a fresh start; a chance to right the wrongs of the previous year (of which there are, undoubtedly, many) and become the person you’ve always dreamed of being, albeit after you’ve gotten over that horrific hangover. But it’s important to remember that not all New Year’s celebrations are full of such hope. The Chinese may not celebrate New Year at the same time as us, but that’s not the only thing that sets them apart.
Every year, when winter ravages the land and there is nothing left to eat, a terrifying beast rises up out of the sea and prowls the Chinese countryside in search of prey. It terrorises villages, kills livestock, razes farmer’s crops, feasts on the villagers themselves, and has a horrifying preference for child meat. After all, nothing goes down smoother than a ten-year old vintage. And by “ten-year old vintage” we mean your son. This ferocious beast travels from village to village, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. Its Chinese name of “Nian Shou” (年兽) literally means “The Year Beast”, and its presence has become synonymous with that of the New Year itself. So, while the rest of the world is popping bottles of champagne and drunkenly regaling their friends with their 2015 woes, the people of China are huddled up in their homes waiting to be devoured. Or are they?
It turns out that the Chinese preference for the colour red isn’t just a tribute to their Communist leaders (or should we say overlords). This love of all things scarlet dates back thousands of years, to when the Nian first began raiding the villagers’ pantries for long grain rice and supple young boys. In spite of its enormous size and brute strength, the Nian is deathly afraid of three things: loud noises, bright lights, and anything red. It might look like a fearsome lion, but it’s really more of a scaredy-cat.
Thus during the New Year or Spring Festival period, Chinese people make more noise and create more commotion than a busload of preteens at a One Direction concert. They beat drums, set off fireworks, burn firecrackers in the street, and (from personal experience) do everything in their power to assault your eardrums on an almost hourly basis. Seriously, it’s a small wonder that the entire population hasn’t gone deaf by now. At night, paper lanterns are crafted, lit, and paraded through the streets, while red decorations and couplets of auspicious sayings are hung from the doorways of houses. People will often stay up late or even all night long on New Year’s Eve simply to ward off any sneaky demons lurking nearby.
The tradition of the Nian has become so ingrained in the culture that, rather than a cheery “Happy New Year”, people will greet one another with the phrase “Guo Nian” (过年), which means “the passing of Nian” or “surviving the Nian”. And we thought New Year’s Resolutions were bad. So you may have to start a diet and give up smoking, but at least you didn’t ring in the New Year by congratulating yourself on not being eaten.
Depictions of the Nian vary depending on which part of China you’re in, but generally speaking it is immense in size and has a jaw so wide that it can scoop up several people in a single go. Remember that time you ate a whole can of Pringles and then cried bitterly about what a fat waste of space you had become? Well imagine doing that with a can full of small children, and that’s how the Nian rolls. It is often portrayed with a single horn or several large horns on its head, which it uses to skewer youngsters before toasting them over a fire like fleshy marshmallows.
In some instances it is said to have the powerful body of an ox and the head of a lion, but in other cases it appears as a half-dragon half-unicorn hybrid. The former usually depicts it with a snub-nose or relatively flat-face, while the latter portrays it with a much longer snout. In any case, it has large sharp teeth capable of tearing through even the strongest of children’s clothes. That is, until Matalan finally brings out their “flesh-eating monster friendly” range.
The story of the Nian dates back thousands of years, to a period that the Chinese refer to as “Shang Gu” (上古) or “the Ancient Times”. Long before the human race had achieved such heights of civilisation as the shotgun and the indoor toilet (both of which are still very hard to find in China), farmers were being terrorised by the ravenous Nian. It was supposedly so formidable that even other demons and beasts dared not get on its bad side, for fear that it would straight up murder them and feast on their tasty organs. At one point, to prove it was the baddest of the bad, it even killed every wild beast in the mountains and drove several species to extinction just to win a bet. Move over Chuck Norris, we got a serious badass over here.
On the run-up to New Year, villagers from across China would flee into the mountains and hide from the creature. That was until one year, when the people of Peach Blossom Village were preparing for their annual fleeing. As Hallmark always says, nothing brings a family together quite like fleeing for your life. Suddenly an old beggar entered the village, his hair a silvery white and his eyes a bright blue. Everyone was too busy making preparations to pay him any mind, but an elderly woman approached him and gave him some food.
She beseeched him to follow them into the mountains, as the Nian was fast approaching and would surely devour him if he stayed. The beggar promised that he could drive the monster away and would do so on one condition: the elderly lady must let him stay in her home for one night. But it wasn’t kinky geriatric sex that was on his mind. In spite of the woman’s entreaties, the beggar would not be moved and she was forced to head up into the mountains alone.
Night fell and the dreaded Nian dashed into the village, searching for a couple of kidlets to whet its appetite. It was furious to find that the village had been abandoned, but soon noticed that the candles in the old lady’s house were still lit. Approaching with caution, it was horrified when it saw a piece of red paper stuck to the door. Loud sounds like thunder began emanating from the house and the beast was paralysed by fear. At that moment, the beggar burst out of the house wearing a red robe and, with its enormous tail between its legs, the Nian bolted into the darkness.
The next day, the villagers returned and were amazed to find that their homes, livestock, and grain stores were still intact. The beggar was gone, but inside the elderly woman’s house they found the remnants of his nightly activities: a few candles, some used firecrackers, and reams of red paper. They realised that the beggar was actually a celestial being who had been sent to teach them how to ward off the Nian. Overjoyed at the prospect of a casualty-free New Year, they all dressed up, set about preparing a huge banquet, and then travelled to nearby villages in order to inform others of the incident.
From that day onwards, during the New Year period, people would stick red paper couplets to their doors, keep their homes well-lit, set off firecrackers, and violate all fire-safety laws known to man. The next day would be spent visiting friends and relatives to congratulate them on having survived the night and not blown themselves up. Seriously, it’s a miracle so few people end up blowing their hands off.
Wherever there are knock-off martial arts games or TV shows, there will always be the Nian. After all, cultural appropriation is totally okay so long as you keep it factual, right? Right?! With that said, here are a few modern-day references to our leonine leviathan:
- A Chinese animated comedy film called Mr. Nian (年兽大作战) follows the story of a hapless and bumbling Nian.
- There is a two-headed canine beast in the online game World of Warcraft called a Nian. During an annual event called The Lunar Festival, a boss version of this monster appears called Omen.
- In the online role-playing game Guild Wars, the Nian is part of an event called the Canthan New Year Celebration.
- There is a monster in the mobile strategy game Game of War called the Nian Lion whose appearance is clearly based on the Nian.
- Nian or “The Year Beast” features as an event boss as part of the New Bloom Festival in the online video game DOTA 2.
- In the video game World of Kung-Fu, the Nian features as a mount.
- In the online game Perfect World: International, there are creatures known as Nienbeasts that are available as mounts and were visually based on the Nian.
- The Nian makes an appearance in an episode of the animated sitcom Three Delivery entitled “Night of the Nian”.
- There is a television series called Spirit Warriors which feature Nian as characters, although they are portrayed as humanoid rather than bestial.
- In 2013, McDonald’s launched this amazing advert where a man refuses to give his hamburger to the Nian.