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According to Chinese mythology, a Nian (simplified Chinese: 年兽; traditional Chinese: 年獸; pinyin: nián shòu) is a beast that lives under the sea or in the mountains. Once each spring, on or around Chinese New Year, it comes out of hiding to attack people, and prefers children. Weaknesses of the Nian are purported to be a sensitivity to loud noises, and a fear of the colour red. The Chinese Lion dance 舞龍舞獅 is known to have originated from the legend of the Nian. The tradition has its origins in a story of a Nian's attack on a village. After the attack, the villagers discussed how to make the Nian leave them in peace. The traditions of firecrackers and red robes found in many Lion Dance portrayals originate from the plan the villagers had in which drums, plates and empty bowls were hit, red robes were worn, and firecrackers were thrown, causing loud banging sounds that they hoped would intimidate the Nian. According to this same myth, the Nian never appeared in the village again. The Nian was still believed to exist, but was never expected to make an appearance to a human again. It thus became symbolic in the eyes of the town people, and they continued doing what was needed to drive it away. With time this become a tradition.
The Symbolic Meaning of Nian: “Bad Things”
Nian, in old China represents the bad things in general, things that the Chinese people were afraid of and would try anything to get rid of. In the history of Nian,that its symbolic representation has changed over time. Nian in the beginning was the bad thing as a monster that would kill people and ruin plantation. In those days, human lives and plantation were the most valuable assets. Therefore, losing human lives and plantation would be the “bad things” the Chinese people try to avoid.People then practice the customs during Chinese New Year to scare away Nian, hoping for a peaceful year in the following year. In the 1980’s and 1990’s and perhaps until today, China is no longer actively in war with other countries, people of China do not put peace as their first priority. With the growing economy and prosperity in the country, people pray for money. Nian now represents poverty. When people in China practices the lion dance and sets off firecrackers, they are trying to scare away Nian, or poverty. By scaring away Nian, they wish that the coming year will be full of opportunities and prosperity.
The Philosophical Meaning of Nian
As time passes, Chinese folktale has a tendency to be mixed with philosophies and lessons. Nian had also become a symbol of the bad things in the past. “Examples of myth being rewritten as literature and philosophy can be found in Taoist writings (Yang, 13).” The philosophy, or the lesson of the story is that one has to actually do something if you would like to get rid of the bad things in your life. The story of Nian shows that villagers were brave enough to defeat the creature in order to regain safety in the village. Villagers did not wait for Nian to die naturally; they did not just pray for its disappearance. Similarly, if one does not want the “bad things” to happen, one has to have the courage to take action and to “scare away Nian”.
A southern style nian in the lion, unicorn, and ox style (Ming)
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