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You may be wondering: What!? It was new year a month ago. Of course, you may be the culturally informed individual to know that the Chinese Lunar New Year was the equivalent of January 31st on the western Gregorian calendar. As an Asian American, I can celebrate two new years, two arbitrary celebrations of celestial body A’s orbit around celestial body B. Despite all the fun that comes with new years, both are rather evanescent and forgotten soon afterwards. This may depend on the date of the lunar new year as possible dates range from January to April. To give this paper a direction to follow, I will recall a couple of stories about the Chinese zodiac and the Chinese New Year to prove that I am not a novice in my own culture.
At an ancient time of unknown years ago, an astute Chinese emperor watched his kingdom flourish after generous rainfall and successful rice harvests. He felt that in order to end his dilatory way of completing tasks he had to do something useful for the Chinese people, something culturally significant that would be remembered in years to come. Therefore, he hosted a race, one that is as egregious as the Olympics games. He invited many animals to participate in the race, including the Ox, the Monkey, and the Rooster.
One such pair of animals were the Rat and the Cat, two of the best friends in the Chinese kingdom. Comparable to George and Lennie of Of Mice and Men, the two, who were living in penury, grasped at this chance at fame and fortune. They agreed to help each other in the race, and so on the morning of the race, they went to the emperor’s palace. After the emperor gave his opening address for the day’s events, he received much adulation from the crowd.
Finally, the race began. The animals ran as quickly as they could, hoping to achieve first place. The Dragon had fallen asleep at the starting line. The Cat leaped and bounded forward while the Rat panted on his short legs. At last they arrived at a great lake. Most of the animals decided to circumvent the lake, despite that that path was nearly four times in length the length of the pool of water. When the rat finally reached the lake, he was drained of energy, and he laid down on the shore of the lake. That was when the Ox came along. After scrutinizing the long lake, he offered the Rat a ride across to the other side, who gratefully agreed.
Once they passed through the lake, they were the first- and second-place contestants in the race. The Ox dashed towards the finish line, and before they passed through, the Ox stopped. He said: “I come from a humble farm and I am not expecting to win anything today. You, on the other hand, have much potential to change the course of the world. I yield the first place spot to you, my friend (something along those lines).” The emperor’s secretary watched them impatiently, but his annoyance abated when the Rat took first and the Ox took second.
Soon afterwards, more animals began to arrive. The Tiger bounded towards the finish line like it was a hurdle race, closely followed by the Rabbit. A great roar shook the valley, and the Dragon arrived in fifth place. A few minutes passed, and more animals appeared: the Goat, the Rooster, and the Pig. As torpid and slovenly as he was, the Pig was clever enough to cross the lake.
At last, all of the animals completed the race. The emperor arrived, recapitulating from his earlier speech, and he read off the list of twelve animals that his secretary had written. The twelve winners were: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig. “Congratulations to the winners! You will be honored in the creation of the official Chinese zodiac!”
After the race was over, the Cat threw a pretentious fit that the Rat had not helped him in the race. The Rat apologized, saying that he forgot, but the Cat would not listen and tried to kill the Rat. Frightened, the Rat ran away from the Cat and his avarice, and rats became the anathema of cats up to this day.
Every 365 days, a monster of gigantic proportions would storm into the town and devour fresh humans. It terrified the village, its inhabitants, and the domesticated animals. Fear of it was like a supercell that hung over them, capable of forming a destructive body at any second. Its presence entered the townspeople’s dreams, terrorizing them from the inside. Its name was Nian, or the Chinese word for “year.”
One day, a young man had a plan to scare away this devilish beast from their village once and for all. He noticed that last time Nian came, it avoided going into houses with red decorations on the door, and it also avoided loud noises, like the noise made when a daluo big gong is struck. This led him to invent the firecracker, with both the color red and the ability to make loud noises. He instructed the villagers to make firecrackers as the day approached.
After they produced enough firecrackers to fill a food silo, the nebulous day had arrived. Firecrackers, red and volatile, hung from the straw roofs of the homes of the villagers. Then, suddenly, Nian appeared. He sniffed and searched for human meat, crawling around like a giant monkey. The young man, watching from the highest of the straw houses, gave the signal, and the firecrackers were lit. Soon, the air was filled with sharp pops and red confetti. The irresolute monster flinched and whined at the presence of two things he hated: red and noise. He ran away from the village, and the villagers rejoiced at its flight.
Since that day, firecrackers, red paper envelopes, and other red goodies are handed out on Chinese New Year. Instead of becoming a necessity, the firecrackers became a tradition of the new year. I hope this explains the Chinese people’s unrivaled obsession with the color red.
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