Monday, January 23, 2012

"KuaiLe and the Monster Nian"

Dragon Pillar - Jumbo Restaurant, Hong Kong
It's Lunar New Year for anyone of Asian descent. Which often means lots of good food, dancing dragons and lions, and of course, red envelopes. Unlike most holidays Lunar New Year lasts about 15 days. This year is particularly special because it's the year of the Dragon - the only the animal of the zodiac that is not real. Dragons are revered highly in Chinese culture, and use as a symbol of royalty.

During the Lunar New Year there are certain traditions that are send to bring good luck or ward off badluck (i.e. hang up bright red decorations, dress up in red/new clothes, clean the house days before, don't cut your hair, don't say bad things about people, etc.) The origin of these traditions are based of a common mythology of a beast terrorizing people and then people fighting back. There are several variations of this legend, but here was my take on it.

I wrote my take on this myth for a college Children's Literature class a few years ago. Enjoy!

新年快樂!

  KuaiLe and the Monster Nian


In the village of Xin there was a monster named Nian that terrorized the villagers and stole its children.

To calm the beast from destroying their village, the villagers had to sacrifice five of their children once a year. However the day they had to give away their children was the same day the New Year started. So while families prepared for the celebrations, they were also praying that their child would not be chosen. Unfortunately there was not much celebration after Nian came.

One year a traveling monk appeared to help the villagers. It was said that he knew how to scare Nian away. He said the people must scare the monster using fire and noise because Nian feared fire dragons because fire dragons had the hottest fire breath and the loudest roar anyone had seen. The villagers did not know much about the monk and whether they had believe what he said was true or not. They had tried finding the cave that Nian lived and had only gotten lost. And when some villagers tried to fight Nian, they also got eaten.

The villagers could not think of anything else because they would end up being inside Nian. So all the villagers agreed to what the monk said because they were too fearful to have their children taken away. It was said the monk might’ve been a god sent down to help them. The night that Nian was supposed to come and eat their children, the villagers built a small fire because they need to preserve the wood for cold nights. So instead the villagers wore best clothing--which just happened to be red--while they danced and banged their drums. The fire dragon often rises from flames from a fire, and if the villagers danced around wearing red, they would look like flames. As they banged their drums the sound echoed in the darkness that sound like a dragon’s roar.

When Nian came to the village, it heard the noise and saw the red shadows dancing. It though the villagers had asked a great fire dragon to destroy him. So the monster did not come to the village that night. The village cheered and celebrated and invited the monk to stay.

As long as the monk was in the village, Nian seemed to stay away. However the monk grew old and died, and the villagers started to panic again. They were only brave because of the monk had given them courage to face Nian. And as time passed, they really believed he was a god from the Heavens. Without him, they were only villagers and soon they forgot the monk’s words and Nian started terrorizing the village again.

The year KuaiLe was chosen to be one of children sacrifices was an extremely sad one. This was because the New Year this year was on her birthday. Her family was extremely sad because KuaiLe was also their only daughter. The only person who was not sad was KuaiLe.

KuaiLe seemed determined to figure a way how to defeat Nian.

That night KuaiLe asked her grandmother, Po-Po, a lot of questions about Nian. What did Nian look like? Was it really scary because it was huge? Or because it was really ugly? Why was it scared of fire dragons?

“Can you tell me the story when Nian first came to our village and how the monk saved the children?” KuaiLe asked.

“You have heard the story so many times. By now you could tell me the story.” Po-Po replied.

It was Po-Po that told her the story about Nian when she was very little. Her parents never told her the story because they would always stiffen when they heard the word “Nian.” That was because a few of their brothers and sisters were chosen previous years. So KuaiLe would often asked Po-Po to tell her the story.

“Do you think the monk was a god? Is that why he knew about the fire and the loud noises?” she said.

KuaiLe was a clever girl who liked to ask a lot of questions. Even when she learned from the village chief that she would be one of the sacrifices, KuaiLe kept asking questions about what would happen. She wanted to figure out a way to scare Nian away, like the monk did years ago.

But the adults only walked away back to their homes ashamed. They did not want to know what happen when Nian came for the children. Usually when Nian came it was in the middle of the night and the children were always gone by the time the sun rose the next morning.

Po-Po did not tell her the story. Instead she asked KuaiLe to go to bed. KuaiLe thought her grandmother was too sad, so that was why she did not tell her the story. Since Po-Po had told her the story so many times, KuaiLe started to tell herself the story. By the time she got to the part where the villagers were dancing and beating drums, KuaiLe fell asleep.

Next morning, KuaiLe woke up rather sad because tonight was the night that she would be taken by Nian.

When she walked into the kitchen, she got a big surprise. Her mother, father and Po-Po had made a really big breakfast along with a few presents piled in a corner.

“Happy Birthday and Happy New Year!” they all said.

She was so surprised, she forgot about Nian. When she opened her presents they were small things: like a piece of candy from her father or a homemade almond cookie from her mother. Po-Po’s present was best of all because it was a bright red suit along with a tiny drum.

As KuaiLe ate her breakfast of noodles she began thinking about Nian and the red suit. She wondered if the other children also dressed in red and beat little drums, they could scare the monster away. But in the story the whole village participated, so how could a group of children scare away a giant monster?

After she finished her breakfast she went to see other children to wish them a Happy New Year, even though this year would not be a happy one.

The other children were already outside in the village square playing with new toys they received as presents. But none of the children were happy because some of them were going to be leaving with Nian.

When KuaiLe appeared, all the children flocked to her.

“Please KuaiLe! What are we going to do?” asked Lum.

“I don’t want to be eaten by Nian!” said one boy who she did not know. The other children started to cry when they heard the word “Nian.” KuaiLe's friend Lin came by and attempt to quiet the other children.

“Everyone stop crying. Nian is not here yet. Plus since KuaiLe was chosen, I’m sure she has already thought of something clever to trick Nian.” Lin said. Some of the children’s faces started to brighten and went somewhere else to play.

It was true. KuaiLe was very smart and clever. The other villagers often commented how she could solve some of their problems when others could not. The other day she was able to lead the neighbor’s donkey out of a mudhole. They often said “You are so clever, no wonder you were born under the Year of the Rat.”

However KuaiLe did not think she was clever enough to outsmart Nian. Nian was a giant monster while she was just a small girl. KuaiLe wished there was at least one fire dragon around.

As the sun started to set, the children started to cry again and were too scared to stop. KuaiLe called the other children.

“Listen. I know you all do not want to be eaten. Nor do you want your friends to be eaten I don’t either. So I think I have a plan.”

The children all started to smile a little when she told them this.

“Do you all have something red to wear or something to make really loud noises? If you do, bring them tonight.” They all nodded.

“But what do those have to do with Nian? We can’t fight Nian with drums. He will probably eat them too!” said the boy who cried earlier. KuaiLe only said, “We will do what the monk told the villagers to do long time ago.” The boy gave a puzzled look and headed home.

They all gathered in the village square where a small fire was lit. Some of the children were wearing bright red clothes while others were holding drums. Some even had pots and ladles to make noise. The adults were very confused by their children’s last request but did so because they did want to have their last words be mean ones.

One by one the villagers painfully left. KuaiLe's father and mother were to heart broken to say goodbye, and Po-Po had to come in their place.

“Ah! I see you are putting my presents to use.” Po-Po said. From the small fire the villagers built for the children, she saw that KuaiLe was wearing the red suit she made for her , as well as holding the small drum. Giving one last hug and kiss, Po-Po said “I will see you in another life.”

And then the children were alone.

Some started to cry. Others just sat still in fear. KuaiLe stood up and started to beat her little drum.

“We all should not be sad because of Nian. It’s the New Year we should all be singing and dancing.” She started to dance around the fire and started singing a song her Po-Po would sing to her on New Year’s.

The children looked at her oddly, but one by one they started to sing and dance and beat their drums too.

The sound of trees moving was heard in the distance. Heavy breathing of an ox-like animal was getting closer. The sound of animals running away echoed in the dark

It was Nian.

Nian heard a strange noise coming from a village. It didn’t sound like the sound of children crying like usual. It was like a sound of a swarm of locusts feeding in the fields. But Nian continued towards the village.

The monster did not like locust. They tended to bite his skin and make him itch a lot. And if there was a swarm in the village they would be very annoying as he ate his meal of children.

But he was very hungry. After all, he hadn’t eaten in a whole year.

When the monster reached the village the children continued singing. Now and then the children would stop and listen. They all knew Nian was close because it was said he smelled like rotting old leaves and thousand-year-old eggs.

Nian saw something very red in the dark. He thought it was another fire dragon. But it was a very small dragon because the sound was not as loud nor was the red as bright.

“Hah! Dragons are a treat. Even though I hate fire dragons, this is a very small dragon which I could eat. The village did a very poor job of calling a fire dragon because a very small one is trying to protect it right now!”

Very excited at the thought of eating a dragon, Nian quicken his pace until he reached the village square.

Now when the children saw Nian they stopped what they were doing. Nian was really a monster. He was like a giant lion costume, but with enormously sharp teeth and claws. His breath smelled like old tofu. His eyes were so black it was like there was nothing there.

“There are more children than before! Your village is foolish if it can think to appease me by giving me more food. Where is the tiny fire dragon your village has summoned to save you? I would like to eat it first to prove that your village cannot beat me.” Nian roared.

“We did not summon a fire dragon. There is only us children.” KuaiLe said.

“No I am positive you have summoned a fire dragon. I heard puny its roar as I came here, and saw its small red body wriggling in the distance. I am sure of it.” Since the monster seemed very confident that it saw a fire dragon, KuaiLe decided to take advantage Nian’s foolishness.

“You are right, I was simply too scared of you that I forgot. The fire dragon is in the small fire you see. It is only very small because we had a very small fire. It is currently saving its strength to fight you. Perhaps you should go into the fire and eat it before it gets any bigger.”

Nian thought about this, but he could not think of a way to be very small. He was so used to being very huge. “I cannot be so small. Besides the fire would burn me if I am not careful.”

“Not if you can be very small. If you are extremely small the fire will not be that hot. You would not even feel the flames. Once you found the dragon then you can become very big again and eat it.”

Nian thought what KuaiLe said was very clever, but also very foolish. Once he ate their fire dragon he could become very big again and eat them. Even if she was helping him to eat the dragon, she was only helping him eat her a little faster. The monster started to scrunched up very tiny until it started to shrink until it was about the size of a gnat.

As soon as KuaiLe saw it fly into the flames, she started to stomp the fire out by putting dirt on it and started stomping on the fire until it was no more. And until she was positive the gnat was squashed. The children couldn’t believe their eyes and started to stomp too in case Nian would become big again.

They laughed and cried because Nian was gone. The children started to cheer for KuaiLe because she was clever enough to trick Nian.

All the villagers came out to see what the commotion was and saw only their children dancing in the dark. Nian was not to be seen. The parents started to run towards them because they realized the monster had been defeated.

When the children told their parents it was KuaiLe who tricked the monster, the villagers all cheered. They quickly ran back into their houses to celebrate by building a very large fire and started to set off fireworks.

KuaiLe’s family all gave her lots of hugs and kisses. They told her she was a gift from the gods and said this year was really a Happy New Year.

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