There’s a tale told so often in conjunction with Chinese New Year to explain the origins of various traditions, namely the wearing of red colours and the lighting of firecrackers. As the story goes, a scary monster, known as the ‘Nien’ (the Chinese word for ‘year’) appears every year to terrorise innocent villagers. It is invincible to all save for firecrackers and red clothing. That is why the Chinese dress up in red and burn firecrackers during Chinese New Year.
No one actually takes this literally as far as I know. And I don’t aim to debunk this myth along the lines of, “Nope, the Nien never existed.” My aim, rather, is to argue that the Nien myth was not as pervasive as imagined, that is–it did not date back as far as we often imagine it to be. No records are to be found of this myth in any classical sources, not “The Classics of Seas and Mountains”–a semi-mythical book that records, as you’ve guessed it, the geography of China (as the Ancient Chinese saw it) and its many strange inhabitants. Not “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”–essentially a compilation of local Chinese myths and ghost stories.
I’d go a step further and say that the Nien myth was made up in the past century or so, but the lack of written records does not permit me to make this statement. No one really knows if the Nien was a local folklore that never made it into written form, if written records had been destroyed, or if it was merely a tale spun in recent years.
The custom of releasing fire-crackers dates a long way back. An early record, written in the Northern and Southern dynasties, (420 to 589 A.D.) describes the custom of releasing firecrackers on the dawn of the new year to frighten mountain spirits. The mountain spirit is said to be shaped like a coma, hops around on one leg, and appears in the dark of night to terrorise humans.
This is likely the predecessor of the Nien mythology. However, most contemporary depictions of the Nien feature it as a four-legged beast with a magnificent mane and single horn–much like a hybrid between a lion and a unicorn. In fact, it resembles the lion used in southern lion dances.
So when was the myth of the Nien popularised? The earliest record I’m able to find online is this article in a Republican-era newspaper dating from 1939. The description is not too different from contemporary versions; though it is mentioned in the article that the humans used food to distract the Nien’s attention–a statement not commonly found in retellings of the tale. And the Nien eventually went extinct, because it failed to produce sufficient little Niens to keep the species going. (In some retellings, the Nien was captured by a celestial being to be used as a mode of transport.)
At any rate, the Nien myth is a tale of man against nature. It is a tale of resilience, of outsmarting the worst of threats–wild beasts and harsh winters, diminishing food supplies and mysterious illnesses. And as society progresses, the threat to survival has long been forgotten. All that remains is a vague tale, a faint remembrance of struggle, and an eventual triumph against all odds.