Chinese New Year History and Legends

The Chinese Lunar Calendar

The Chinese Lunar New Year is the longest chronological record in history, dating from 2600 B.C. when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac. Like the Western calendar, the Chinese lunar calendar is a yearly one. However, this calendar is based on the movements of the moon, with each month beginning a new moon. Because of this cyclical dating, the beginning of the year can fall anywhere between late January and mid February. (This year the New Year is February 7.) A complete cycle takes 60 years and is made up of five cycles of 12 years each.

The Chinese New Year was originally known as the Spring Festival. Today, many fascinating legends are associated with the origins of the Chinese New Year. Hope you enjoy the following legends.

The Monster Nian

The word Nian, the modern Chinese word for "year," was originally the name of a monster that preyed on people at night before the beginning of a new year. The beast Nian was said to have a large mouth capable of swallowing many people with one bite. The people were afraid and could not find a way to rid themselves of this dreadful beast. One day an old man appeared, offering to subdue Nian. To Nian he said, "I hear that you are very capable, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on earth instead of the people who are by no means worthy opponents to you?"

So Nian proceeded to swallow as many of the beasts of prey on earth as possible, and soon after the old man, later discovered to be an immortal god, vanished riding the beast Nian. With Nian and the remaining beasts of prey scared into the forest, people began to enjoy life again. However, before leaving the people, the old man had told the people to place red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year's end to scare Nian away should he ever run loose again, because red is the color the beast feared the most.

From then on, the tradition of observing the conquest of Nian was carried on from generation to generation. The term Guo Nian, which once translated to Survive the Nian today, today means to Celebrate the (New) Year as the word Guo in Chinese means both pass-over and observe. The custom of putting up red paper and lighting fire-crackers to scare away Nian in the case of his return is still around today, though the people have long forgotten the origins behind this tradition.

The Rat and the Chinese Zodiac

The Rat is best known for its cleverness. A Taoist folktale recounts how Rat tricked Ox to become the first animal in the Taoist zodiac... Long ago a contest was held in a Chinese village to select the twelve animals of the horoscope. Rat asked Ox for a ride on his back to get to the village for the contest. So Ox carried Rat for miles across rough terrain and struggled mightily as he swam across a torrential river, finally arriving at the village. The village people saw Rat riding on Ox's back and were so impressed his ingenuity that they declared Rat to be first in the sequence of the horoscope. (And the hard-working, selfless Ox became second in the sequence.)

In the Buddhist version of this folktale, the first animal to reach the bed side of the dying Buddha would be the first animal of the horoscope. In this version Rat rode on Ox's back and then jumped off, becoming the first to reach Buddha, and thus becoming first in the horoscope.

A more commonly known tale, goes like this... Thousands of years ago Buddha decided to reorganize the Chinese nation and thus summoned all the animals of the world. Only twelve chose to obey. These were the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, chicken, dog, and boar. As a result, Buddha gave each of these animals a year of its own in the order of its arrival. From then on, so the legend claims, each year of the Chinese calendar bears the characteristics of the animal of that name. Today, being able to count off this list of sheng-hsiao, or the twelve animals, is as much a part of the local Chinese culture as the Westerner's horoscope is a part of American society.

Chinese astrology also divides the day into twelve two-hour vigils, each presided over by one of the twelve zodiac animals. Each animal is also modified by each of the five elements or phases (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). This forms an overall sixty year cycle, known as chia-tzu. During each cycle, smaller increments of time defined as the Twelve Earthly Branches and Ten Celestial stems combine with the signs of the zodiac to determine the Lunar New Year and other special dates on the Chinese calendar. Thus, this is Lunar year, 4706, the Year of the Earth Rat.

Chinese astrologers believe that people born in specific animal years are pre-dispositioned towards the nature of the animal under which they were born, much as with the American horoscope. The Chinese have used the five elements and twelve animals for many centuries for character reading and fate prediction. The data and time of birth is believed to correspond to a set of predetermined characteristics that help predict a person's basic nature. Evaluating a person's sign in association with the sign of those with whom she/he is involved has long been used to help make decisions on marriage, family, child naming, vocation, agriculture, relocation, and burial.

From our article on the Year of the Ox , judge for yourself if the characteristics of each animal describe you or your friends.

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