Chinese New Year: Mythical Origins of Common Traditions

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Among the many of Chinese New Year traditions, three are guaranteed: firecrackers, hongbao (red envelopes of money), and red-colored everything. The origins of these icons, however, are rooted in story.

The Color Red and Firecrackers

Origins of Common Traditions
The red color is predominant in all Chinese celebrations, particularly Chinese New Year

In ancient China, there was an abnormally fierce monster called Nian who lived at the bottom of the sea, only going ashore for meals. Unfortunately, its meals consisted of livestock and humans, and it only fed on one day of the year – New Year’s Eve.

In order to avoid being eaten, people in the villages fled to the mountains to avoid falling prey to Nian’s annual feast. However, one year, an old man came to one of the villages seeking refuge, claiming that in exchange, he would drive Nian away. Of course, people in the village did not believe him, and fearing for his life and theirs, tried desperately to persuaded him to join them in fleeing for the mountains for New Year’s Eve. But the old man was insistent, he was staying.

When New Year’s Eve was upon them, the village people, safe on the high slopes of the mountains, heard the burst of firecrackers echoing through the valley from their village below. The next day, when they returned, they found their village and livestock safe and sound, exactly as they’d left it. The night before, when Nian prepared to attack the villages for his usual feast, the old man used red paper, red candles and red firecrackers to scared it away. And so it was discovered that the color red and firecrackers had special powers in warding off evil spirits, like Nian.

Hongbao (red envelopes of money)

Origins of Common Traditions
Traditional Hongbaos

The giving of money for Spring Festival may seem like a modern addition, but a widespread legend on the origins of hongbao calls that into question. In ancient times, there was a small demon called Sui, who came out on the night of New Year’s Eve to touch the head of sleeping children. The children were often too scared to cry and alert their parents for help. So, they would fall victim to Sui, waking up on New Year’s Day with a headache and fever, before eventually becoming permanently and irreversibly brain-dead. In fear of Sui claiming their children’s minds, parents began sitting up till dawn with a light on in order to protect and safeguard their young.

The story continues, that there was once a couple who gave birth to a son in their elder years. They felt extra precautions needed to be taken to ward off Sui from attacking their son, so on New Year’s Eve, they took out eight copper coins for him to play with, hoping this would keep him awake as long as possible. When the child was eventually tired and fell asleep, they put the eight coppers wrapped in red paper under his pillow. The husband and wife tried their hardest to stay awake, but they too eventually fell asleep before dawn. In the middle of the night, Sui conjured a gust of wind to break into the child’s room, but when he was about to touch the child’s head, bright flashes of light suddenly appeared around the pillow. This had never happened before, and the Sui ran away in fear. The next day, the couple told everyone how they scared away Sui by wrapping eight copper coins in red paper. After that, everyone started doing the same. And so the origins of hongbao are traced to warding off evil spirits and safeguarding children. 

Chinese New Year: Mythical Origins of Common Traditions
Chinese New Year: Mythical Origins of Common Traditions

Article by Oreo Zeng – WildChina