The Nian of the Mountains (A Chinese Folktale of the New Year)


Long ago in the mountains, there lived a horrible demon creature called the Nian. At the start of each new year, the creature woke and raced down from the mountains to attack a village. Once there, he attacked all the chickens and cattle and any other creature he spotted. He swallowed all the grain, and if a little child was in his way, he ate that child too. People were terrified, and before the start of each new year, they prepared to protect everyone and everything they loved.

This meant the start of each new year was filled with fear, not hope, and sorrow, not joy. As people boarded up their houses to protect their families and locked the animals inside their barns, they whispered and wept. They pulled their blinds and held their breath and warned their children not to go outside. Each new year was sadder than the one before.

One year, in a tiny village at the foot of the mountain, as the villagers prepared to protect themselves, a stranger appeared. He was an old man, and he walked with a limp, but he wandered through the village asking everyone why they were afraid.

“The Nian is coming to destroy us,” the people said.

“But there are so many of you,” the old man argued. “He is only one. He could never swallow all of you.”

“You never know,” they whispered, and they wondered at this strange old man who seemed so unafraid.

When the eve of the new year arrived, the villagers began to lock themselves inside their homes. Many people invited the old man to join them, but he refused. He stayed outside, waiting for the Nian to appear.

At midnight, as the Nian descended from the mountain, the old man cried, “Watch out! I’m coming to get you,” and he began to chase him. The Nian was startled at the sight of this strange old man so unafraid that he turned and ran away.

All night long, the old man chased him up and down mountains, into the valleys, past houses and barns, through rice paddies and rivers. Just before dawn, the Nian raced up to the top of his mountain and ran into his cave.

There he lay down, starving, exhausted, furious and vowing to destroy the village the next night.

But when the Nian came the next night, the old man chased him again. Once again, the Nian returned home to his cave, starving and worn.

This went on for five nights. Each night the old man seemed more energized, and the Nian seemed slower, smaller and weaker.

As the people watched this incredible sight, they began to understand. The wise men of the village gathered together to discuss it, and they concluded that the old man was a god who had come to save them.

The wise men called upon the old man. They bowed down to him. “We understand you are a god sent to protect us,” they said. “We are grateful.”

The old man nodded. “Yes, you are right, but I cannot stay and protect you forever. You must learn to use your own wits and strength. Now you see how easy it is to frighten the beast.”

The wise men listened closely to the old man’s wisdom.

“The beast fears the color red,” he said. “So you must spread the color red across the village. Hang a red sign upon each door. He is also terrified of noise, so make noise. Play drums and horns. Set off fireworks. Sing as loudly as you can!”

The wise men nodded. “And how shall we protect our children?” they asked.

“Give them masks to wear and lanterns to carry. Teach them to shout and sing and dance. Tell them to celebrate the new year with light!”

The next night the villagers followed the old man’s directions. They hung red decorations everywhere — on every door, in every barn. They banged drums and blew horns and set off fireworks. They made lanterns in every shape and size, and their children wore masks and paraded through the streets carrying those lanterns of light.

Ever since that day, the conquest of the Nian is carried on. The people call New Year’s Day “Guo Nian,” which means “the passing of the beast,” and they enjoy their peaceful new year. They hang red lanterns and scrolls on their doors and in their windows, keeping away the Nian, and they light firecrackers to frighten him so that he never dares return.

by Amy Friedman and Meredith Johnson



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