Today is the Chinese New Year, and as you prepare to celebrate, I entreat you to remember the reason for the season. It’s a tale of not inconsiderable woe, and for this reason children are cautioned against reading it, though they’re also, paradoxically, commanded to heed it.
In the land called China, during a period called the shànggǔ—which translates roughly to “a very long time ago”—a fearsome creature-beast once roamed the land. It was known as the Nian, because rather than howling or roaring like your more conventional monster types, it emitted a cry that sounds like the Chinese word nián. Accounts of the beast’s appearance vary, but in many depictions, it resembles the stone lions sometimes seen outside Chinese restaurants: flat faced, with a dog’s body, prominent incisors, and a barrister’s powdered wig. Some have even described it as a lion with the heart of a bull. All of which suggests that it’s fairly effete and underwhelming, with very high blood pressure.
And yet it struck terror into the hearts of men. Every year on the night of the second full moon after the winter solstice, the Nian would come down from its home in the mountains to harass people and eat their chickens and children. In order to escape its wrath, the villagers would evacuate their homes and flee into the forest. This went on for centuries, presumably, until one year the people devised a plan. They sent an emissary up through the mountains into the Nian’s lair. Quaking with fear, he approached it and he said, “Nian, if you think you’re so big, go and kill all the other monsters in the world.”
And so it was that the Nian killed all the other monsters in the world. Read More