• Imagining History

Chinese New Year – The Legend of Nian

Updated: Apr 4


Dragon Dance - Courtesy of Hendrik van den Berg

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is celebrated on the Lunar New Year every year. The Lunar New Year often falls in late January or February. The date is different to the New Year that happens on January 1st because Lunar New year marks the start of the Lunar Calendar, based on the cycles of the moon. In 2022, the Lunar New year falls on February 1st and marks the start of the 15 day celebrations of Chinese New year.


Just like the traditions we have for other modern day celebrations, such as Christmas or Halloween, many of the celebratory traditions for Chinese New Year are based in history and folklore. One such legend is the legend of Nian.


A sculpture of Nian

Who Was Nian?:


Nian was a terrifying demon-monster with sharp teeth and sharp horns. Some versions of the story say he looked like a fearsome dragon, others like a ferocious lion.


Every year on the eve of Chinese New Year, Nian would creep out from his hiding place in the mountains or in the sea to find something to eat. All night he would terrorise the people living in nearby villages. He would scoff their food, wolf down their crops, chomp on their animals and, if he was really hungry, even gobble up their children!


Every year, on the eve of Chinese New Year, the villagers would flee their homes to hide in a safe place in the mountains. The next day they would return to their village to find their homes in ruins and their food stores demolished.


But one year, everything changed.


Chinese Lion Dance

A Stranger Arrives:


A stranger arrived in the village just as the villagers were hurriedly packing their belongings to flee their homes. The stranger was a beggar dressed in rags who was hoping to find shelter in the village.


Although the villagers warned the stranger about Nian and encouraged him to flee with them to the safe place in the mountains, the stranger refused to go with them. He explained to the villagers that he knew how to scare away the monster and would put his plan into action that night in return for shelter for the night in the village. The villagers thought he was mad to stay in the village, but one woman offered him her house to stay in before fleeing to the mountains with the others.


Chinese New Year Firecrackers - Courtesy kanegen

Nian Makes His Visit:


That night, Nian crept into the village like he did every year. But when he reached the first house, he stopped in his tracks. The stranger had hung red decorations around the doors of the house and many candles were lit inside. Nian was intimidated by the dazzling lights and bright colours.


Suddenly, a loud crackling and popping noise punched through the air. Nian was shocked and jumped out of his skin. The stranger flung open the door of the house and jumped out at Nian. He was wearing bright red clothes and was loudly laughing at the monster. Nian was terrified and quickly turned tail and ran.


Red decorations for Chinese New Year

The Villagers Return:


The next morning the villagers were amazed when they returned to find their homes intact and their animals happily grazing in the fields. They questioned the stranger to find out the secrets of his cunning plan.


He revealed to them the three secrets to the banishment of the monster: bright lights, the colour red and loud noises. From then, the villagers followed the stranger’s advice every year to keep themselves safe from the evil monster.


Chinese Lion Dance said to scare away Nian

The Traditions Continue:


Modern day Chinese New Year celebrations still follow the advice set down by the stranger in the village.


Many people light firecrackers or set off fireworks to scare away Nian with bright lights and loud noises. Some people also wear red just like the stranger from the story. Red decorations are used to ward away the monster and other demons that creep around during the night on the eve of Chinese New Year. Celebrations often include parades with loud music, drumming and dancing.


The greeting “Guo Nian” is often shared at Chinese New Year – a phrase which can mean "to pass" or "overcome" Nian.