The Dawn of the Rooster

Any dictionary will tell you that 年 (nián) means ‘year’, but delve deeper into the myths and legends surrounding Chinese New Year and you’ll discover the legend of the monster Nian with a long head and deadly horns. It dwells deep in the sea, but on New Year’s Eve every year it came into villages to eat the people and their livestock, causing many people to flee to the mountains for New Year’s Eve. Apparently one year, an old man (wise people in stories are always old, everyone knows that) scared away the monster by sticking red paper to the doors, burning bamboo (which makes a loud cracking sound), lighting candles and wearing red clothes. Every year since, Nian has never visited and everyone still follows the old man’s instructions to welcome in the New Year. The word ‘过年’ (meaning Chinese New Year) literally means ‘overcome Nian’.

In the many stories surrounding Chinese New Year, the most famous is the story of the animal race. This year, the year of the rooster, is the 10th zodiac year – which is strange, because according to the myth the goat, monkey and rooster worked together to make a raft to cross the river, yet the rooster was assigned 10th place, when the others got 8th and 9th. But this year (or the one starting this Sunday), the rooster gets it’s time to shine – so get your, er, rooster themed decorations ready to start the party!

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There are elaborate proceedings for preparing for and celebrating Chinese New Year, and 6 whole days are put aside this week for cleaning and shopping. There are even checklists for New Year’s Eve: 1) Enjoy a dinner 2) Give money to kids – but make sure you leave time for the last one, it’s catastrophic if you do this late – 3) Stay up late. China’s New Year Gala, which runs throughout New Year’s Eve is a bit grander than (no offence) Jool’s Hootenanny – China’s best singers, dancers and acrobats take part in elaborate performances all night long.

China also is too stingy to allow for a whole 12 days for a song, with most people returning to work on the 8th day of the New Year – but don’t worry, you’re allowed to do a (fun? ceremonial?) sweep of the house before then. However (I know you’re desperate, but hang on), you can’t clean your house on New Year’s Day, as then you’d be sweeping away the good luck from the night. Disappointing, isn’t it?


Things I’ve learned this week:

  • January 1st New Year may be a time for relaxing (or going to the gym for the first and last time), but Chinese New Year brings a daunting task – overcoming the evil monster by, er, wearing a red shirt
  • Auld Lang Syne chanted against the cold London wind has been upstaged by a full scale Gala – think we’d better up our game?
  • There’s only time for the maids a milking – but ‘Ten Lords a-working at a call centre’ doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it

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