Chinese New Year Legends

Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) is also called guo nian (过年) in Chinese. “Guo” means pass over and “nian” or "year" in Chinese refers to a mythical beast that will bring bad luck.

The Legend of Monster Nian

In ancient times, there was a big-horned monster called “Nian” who lived at the bottom of the sea all year. But on Spring Festival Eve it would come out to devour livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. As a result, all the people would flee from their homes to remote mountains to escape the danger each year on this day.

One Spring Festival Eve, closing the doors and windows, people in Taohua (Peach Blossom) Village were preparing to flee with all their possessions. An old beggar with a stick and a bag in his hands came to the village to seek shelter, but no one had time to care about him except for an old woman who gave him food to eat and suggested he get away from Nian.

The old beggar smiled and said: “Lady, if you let me stay one night in your house, I will get rid of Nian for you.” The old woman was surprised but still tried to convince him to flee to the mountains. The old beggar just smiled without reply. Having no alternative, the old woman ran away to the mountains, leaving only the old beggar in the house.

On the stroke of midnight, the monster Nian rushed into the village, but immediately stopped as soon as it saw the red paper pasted on the door, all the candle light in the house and the old beggar dressed in red, laughing at him. Nian could only take flight with great haste at the sound of firecrackers exploding in the yard.

The next day, the villagers came back home and were very surprised to find everything in good condition. It suddenly occurred to the old woman what the old beggar had said and she told the other villagers. People then realized that  Nian was afraid of the color red, loud noises and bright light.

From then on, the way to get rid of Nian spread from mouth to mouth and quickly became prevalent. Every Spring Festival Eve, people would glue red paper with couplets written on them at the doors. They would stay up late or all night (shousui) with new clothes on, to wait for the New Year's arrival, lighting lanterns and setting off firecrackers.

The Legend of Taofu

An ancient Chinese legend says that there were two deities who controlled evil spirits in the ghost world. So Chinese folk carved the appearance of those two deities on peach wood and put it outside their doors to drive out evil. Afterwards, people just wrote the names of the two gods on two pieces of peach wood. The wood was later called “taofu” (桃符), the original name of Spring Festival couplets.

  • By the Song dynasty (960 -1279 A D), taofu was gradually replaced by two pieces of red paper and evolved into today’s Chinese New Year couplets.

Having evolved from the ancient custom of defeating evil spirits, nowadays taofu serves as a lucky decoration and expresses people’s best wishes for the coming new year.

The Story of the Door Gods

Emperor Taizong of Tang had fallen ill, and one night he lay tossing and turning in his bed and had a really bad dream. Ghosts howled and screamed in his head all night. The next day, he told his two best soldiers, Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong, about the dream.

The next night, these good soldiers stood outside the emperor’s bedroom door. One held a club and the other, an iron rod. In the morning, the emperor said that he had slept like a log. But the soldiers could not spend every night guarding his room.

Therefore the emperor told an artist to paint pictures of the two soldiers which were then hung on the palace gates as guards. Word soon got round that the paintings were guarding the palace against evil spirits. So, people started to glue pictures of the two soldiers on the front door of their houses as a talisman for the coming year, making them into Door Gods.

Since then, pasting pictures of the two Door Gods on the front door at New Year’s Eve has become a tradition that continues today.