Malicious Myths: The Nian (年兽)

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.

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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.

legend_nian2Thus 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.

Appearance

nianDepictions 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.

Origins

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.

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If I fits, I sits

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.

9753b31f15dd7a88d4f2e91b0add00baNight 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.

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Rawr

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.

Modern-day Usage

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:

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  • A Chinese animated comedy film called Mr. Nian (年兽大作战) is set to come out on February 8th 2016, the date Chinese New Year falls on this year. The main character is 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.
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Ride ’em Cowboy
  • 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.

 

 

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Malicious Myths: The Nian (年兽)

Malicious Myths: The Jiangshi (僵尸)

After working in a Chinese middle school for nearly two years, I considered myself pretty hip with the lingo. When a student jokingly told me their favourite animal was a “turtle’s egg”, I was already aware that the Chinese word for turtle egg (王八蛋) was in fact a horrific insult. When another student tried to get past me by called their friend “sb”, I kindly informed them that I knew the term “sb”, or “shǎbī” (傻逼), meant “retard”.

Yet my confidence was soon to be shattered in a lesson on Halloween, when I asked one of my students to pretend to be a zombie. In the strangest gesture I have ever seen, the teenager placed their arms straight ahead of them and hopped on the spot, much to the delight of their peers. I hoped this might be a one-off, but it happened again in every single one of my nineteen classes. I was stumped.

That is, until I discovered the mighty jiangshi. The term jiangshi (僵尸) literally means “stiff corpse” in Chinese, perhaps because the term “wobbly corpse” wouldn’t inspire much fear. These Chinese zombies have almost completely succumbed to rigor mortis and so are too stiff to move properly. Instead they must hop around with their arms outstretched in a manner that looks totally cool and is certainly not ridiculous. Okay, it’s ridiculous. Also, they’re blind. And incapable of independent thought or speech. Basically they just kind of suck all round. They locate prey using their sense of smell or by listening out for their breathing. So if you happen to meet a jiangshi, the key is to hold your breath…indefinitely.

They are sometimes referred to as the Chinese vampire, the “hopping” vampire, or the “hopping” zombie because of their penchant for jumping around and draining people’s life force. Yep, unlike vampires, they do not drink blood but instead feed off of the “life force” or qi of their victims. They usually strike at night and spend the day resting in a coffin, hiding in dark places such as caves, or contemplating how pathetic they are.

Some things that can help ward off a jiangshi are: mirrors, as they are terrified of their own reflection; an item made from the wood of a peach tree; a rooster’s call; the hooves of a black donkey; and the blood of a black dog, to name but a few. They also have an obsessive desire to count things. So apparently just throwing a load of objects, such as rice grains, at their feet will halt their path, as they will feel an overwhelming urge to catalogue your useless junk. According to the Chinese practice of feng shui, most Chinese homes are equipped with a comedy oversized wooden threshold on their front doors to prevent jiangshi from entering the house. After all, it’s not like they can just hop over it or anything. Oh wait.

While jiangshi may not seem all that terrifying at first, there are six levels of this creepy bopper that become less laughable and increasingly more dangerous as they go on. They start off as white jiangshi, since they are covered in tiny white hairs. White jiangshi are deathly afraid of sunshine, fire, water, chickens, dogs, people, and…well pretty much anything. They also move incredibly slowly and can be killed very easily. Just pushing them over will apparently do.

However, after a couple of years spent feeding on the life force of ox and sheep, the white hairs on their body turn black. These black jiangshi are still afraid of sunlight and fire, but will boldly confront chickens and dogs. They still take great pains to avoid humans, and will only try to drain their life force once they are asleep. So watch out for that heavy corpse breathing!

Five years later, if the black jiangshi drinks up just enough life force, its black hairs drop off and it starts swiftly bouncing around like some kind of demonic pogo stick. These jumping jiangshi no longer fear any kind of domestic animals and are extremely dangerous. While dogs become deadly silent in their presence, cats will hiss at them with great ferocity. After one hundred years, the jumping jiangshi magically acquires the ability to fly and can also climb trees and high buildings. These flying jiangshi stalk their prey with ease and can drain the life essence from any creature without even leaving a mark. But, on the bright side, at least you won’t have to cover up any hickeys with a ridiculous scarf.

After nearly a thousand years, the flying jiangshi inherits demigod-like status and becomes a ba (魃) or Drought Demon. Ba can shapeshift into any creature, cause droughts, and infect large groups of people with plague. It is thought they can even fly into the heavens to kill celestial dragons. Tens of thousands of years may pass before the ba makes its final transformation and becomes The Demon King. The Demon King enjoys practically godlike status and has virtually limitless powers. It can even challenge heavenly deities so, if you see one, prepare for the end of days.

Appearance

Jiangshi are normally depicted as stiff looking corpses dressed in official garments from the Qing Dynasty. Their arms are outstretched and they move with a disjointed hopping motion, kind of like a rabbit on LSD. While some jiangshi appear to be just normal people with a fetish for ancient Chinese clothing and an overwhelming desire to hop wherever they go, those who have been left to rot too long before being reanimated may be in a horrifying state of decay.

They have greenish-white skin, perhaps derived from fungus or mould having grown on their corpses or perhaps because they were just filthy people. They have long white hair on their heads and, in some accounts, are portrayed with more bestial features such as claw-like fingernails and a long, prehensile tongue. Sometimes they are shown with a mystical white tag glued to their forehead, as this is the sign that a Taoist priest has reanimated them.

Origins

Jiangshi may be the result of several misdeeds, including the use of necromancy to resurrect the dead; the spiritual possession of a corpse; a corpse who has absorbed enough qi to reanimate of its own volition; a corpse who has not received a proper burial after its funeral; a corpse who has been struck by lightning or jumped over by a pregnant cat; and a person whose soul fails to leave their body for various reasons, including an improper death, suicide, or the simple desire to want to ruin other people’s lives for no reason.

Stories of jiangshi began emerging around about the 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty, and were usually related to a practice known as “transporting the corpse over a thousand li” (千里行尸). It was, and still is, commonly believed that a person’s soul would become homesick if they were buried in an unfamiliar place, so it was paramount that the body be brought home for the funeral. Supposedly if someone died far away from home and their relatives could not afford a vehicle to carry their corpse back for burial, they could hire a Taoist priest to conduct a ritual that would reanimate the deceased and incite them to “hop” their way home. These priests would transport several corpses late at night and would ring bells to notify others of their approach, as it was considered bad luck for anyone to set eyes on a jiangshi.

This practice was also called “driving corpses in Xiangxi” (湘西赶尸), as many people left their hometowns to work in Xiangxi Prefecture of Hunan Province. In actual fact, it is commonly thought that corpses would be arranged upright and tied to two long bamboo rods, which would be supported and carried by two men at either end. To the untrained eye, as the bamboo flexed up and down, the corpses would appear to be hopping.

Modern-Day Usage

Though the jiangshi may not be the most popular monster in the Western canon, it has graced media of all kinds in the Far East. In fact, in Hong Kong and East Asia, there is even such a thing as a jiangshi genre of film. Without further ado, here are some modern-day references to our bouncy buddy:

  • The two short stories “A Vampiric Demon” and “Spraying Water” in Pu Songling’s epic Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio both contain jiangshi.

  • Encounters of the Spooky Kind, a 1980 Hong King comedy horror directed by Sammo Hung, is credited to have pioneered the jiangshi film genre.
  • The 1985 Hong Kong comedy horror film Mr. Vampire, directed by Ricky Lau, is considered the most successful of the jiangshi film genre. The story revolves around a Taoist Priest, who happens to have supernatural powers and be adept at kung fu. He is on a quest to vanquish a vengeful ghost, assisted by his incompetent sidekicks.
  • The Era of Vampires, released in 2002 and directed by Wellson Chin, is one of the only films in the genre that is not a comedy.
  • Jiangshi feature as enemies in the expansion pack for the video game Sleeping Dogs known as “Nightmare in North Point”.

  • In the video game Phantom Fighter, you play a traveling monk who goes around fighting jiangshi.
  • There is an optional boss in the video game Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia which is a jiangshi. It is the only boss in the game that cannot be permanently destroyed.
  • In the video game Super Street Fighter IV, the alternate costume for the character Rufus is that of a jiangshi.
  • The plot of the video game Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines revolves around a conflict between classical Western vampires, who are the “good” guys, and jiangshi, who are of course the bad guys.
Malicious Myths: The Jiangshi (僵尸)

Historical Horror: Unit 731

“The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down. But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming. I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time”

This is a quote taken from one of the worker’s at Unit 731. Let me be straight here: this post will contain descriptions of graphic violence in its barest form, sans the humour of my usual posts. I lived and worked in China for two years, I have studied the language for longer than I care to recount here, and I currently work for a Chinese company. The country is very close to my heart and the atrocities that took place in Unit 731 disgust me to the very core of my being. This is why I am determined to write about them now, and why I have warned you here.

Unit 731 was an undercover operation led by the Imperial Japanese Army to conduct research into biological and chemical warfare. Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the unit was used to perform lethal human experiments on POWs and civilians. Behind the walls of this compound, some of the world’s most notorious war crimes took place.

The complex was established in 1934 and based in Harbin, a city at the very northernmost and iciest expanse of China’s borders. It was officially known as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army; an alias that would serve it well for several years. The site was the brainchild of General Shiro Ishii, a decorated medical officer in the Imperial Japanese Army who proposed the idea for the facility in 1930.

Its predecessor, Unit Tōgō, was also masterminded by Ishii but was shut down not long after a prison break overran the facility. His new compound, however, far outranked its ancestor; it covered six square kilometres and was made up of more than 150 buildings. The walls were reinforced, making the buildings incredibly difficult to destroy, and overall they contained over 4,500 vessels used to breed fleas and approximately 1,800 used to produce biological agents.

It is estimated that anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 men, women, and children were subjected to horrific human experiments in the base camp alone; about 600 people every year. About 70% of these victims were Chinese, while the remaining 30% was made up predominantly of Russian POWs as well as a few Southeast Asians and POWs from Allied countries. Right up until the end of the war in 1945, the unit received generous support from the Japanese government.

Workers within the compound would refer to human subjects as maruta or “logs” in an effort to dehumanise them and hide their presence from outside forces. This euphemism was treated as a joke, as the cover story given to the local authorities was that the facility was a lumber mill. Victims routinely rounded up for use in experiments ranged from POWs and criminals to infants, pregnant women, and elderly civilians.

Many of the victims were forcibly infected with diseases before being subjected to live vivisection without anaesthesia. Doctors would perform invasive surgery on these inmates and remove vital organs, such as the brain, liver, and lungs, to see what effect certain diseases had on the body. They felt that victims must be alive for these experiments, lest decomposition took place and damaged the organs. During some experiments, victims would have their stomachs removed and their intestines connected directly to their oesophaguses.

In 2007, a military surgeon named Ken Yuasa, who had worked in Unit 731, was quoted by the Japan Times as saying: “I was afraid during my first vivisection, but the second time around, it was much easier. By the third time, I was willing to do it”. Based on his testimony, it was estimated that at least 1,000 medical staff were involved in these horrific surgeries.

Prisoners would have limbs amputated, again under no anaesthesia, to see the effect of blood loss. In some cases, the limbs would be re-attached to the other side of their body so that researchers could determine whether this was a viable way of keeping the limbs alive. Sometimes they would be frozen and amputated, or allowed to thaw to see the subsequent effects of rotting and gangrene.

Frostbite was a particular concern, as Japan wanted to be prepared in the event that they had to invade Russia and deal with its unforgiving climate. A physiologist named Yoshimura Hisato pioneered frostbite research by taking prisoners out into the sub-zero temperatures, dipping their limbs into water, and then allowing them to freeze. Once the area was completely frozen, they would experiment in a number of ways to try and “treat” the frostbite, including bludgeoning the limb and chipping away the ice.

Even if they were spared surgery, the vast majority of prisoners were intentionally injected with venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea under the guise of “vaccinations”. Some prisoners were repeatedly raped by guards, who had contracted the disease after having raped civilian women or shared unwilling sex slaves. In an attempt to find a cure, many civilian women were forcibly injected with syphilis, and some of them were even forced to get pregnant before being vivisected to further examine the vertical transmission of the disease.

Those who were “lucky” enough to escape surgery, forced infection, and frostbite were tied to stakes outside of the facility and subjected to grenades, flamethrowers, germ-releasing bombs, chemical weapons, and explosive bombs. Other experiments involved depriving prisoners of food and water to see how long they would last; placing prisoners into pressure chambers to determine how much pressure the human body could take before the eyeballs popped out; spinning prisoners in centrifuges until they died; injecting prisoners with animal blood; exposing them to lethal doses of x-rays; gassing them; injecting them with sea water; and burning them alive.

Unit 731 and an affiliated site, known as Unit 1644, continuously bred plague infected fleas while another satellite complex, Unit 8604, was used to breed rats. Outside of the facility, plague fleas, infected clothing, and infected supplies were packaged into bombs and dropped on various targets throughout China. The resultant effects, including widespread cholera, tularemia, and plague, were estimated to have killed over 400,000 Chinese civilians.

They were known to have spread plague infected fleas over the coastal city of Ningbo in 1940 and Hunan’s Changde City in 1941 using low-flying planes. On September 22nd 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army had prepared and scheduled to drop one of these patented plague bombs on San Diego, California. However, they surrendered five weeks before the bomb was due to launch.

When Russians finally invaded the Harbin area in 1945, the researchers in Unit 731 abandoned their work and fled to Japan. General Ishii ordered them to take their secret to the grave and issued all of them with vials of potassium cyanide in the event that they were captured. Japanese troops were sent to blow up the compound and destroy all of the evidence, but it was so well built that it survived somewhat intact.

After continuing pressure from the American military, a microbiologist known as Lieutenant Colonel Murray Sanders was provided with a manuscript by the Japanese government detailing their involvement in biological warfare. He took it directly to the then Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces; Douglas MacArthur. Yet, when evidence of the unit was finally discovered, rather than punish the perpetrators, the Americans decided to grant the researchers immunity in exchange for their data on biological and chemical warfare.

On the 6th of May 1947, MacArthur wrote to the Pentagon stating that “possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as ‘War Crimes’ evidence”. They managed to dismiss victims’ testimonies as “Communist Propaganda”.

The physicians provided the U.S. government with details of their research, agreed to withhold this evidence from other Allied countries, and in exchange were granted immunity. One member of Unit 1644, Masami Kitaoka, went on to perform experiments on unwilling Japanese subjects. He infected prisoners with rickettsia and mental health patients with typhus while working for Japan’s National Institute of Health Sciences.

To this day, none of the known perpetrators who carried out such inhumane experimentation have been tried, nor has Japan acknowledged the presence of the unit or apologised formally for the atrocities committed there. While many of these war criminals went on to enjoy high-ranking medical positions and normal lives, they have left behind only devastation in their wake.

Historical Horror: Unit 731