Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Red, White and the Story of Nian

There is a fable behind the red and loud origins of Chinese New Year. There is a little city in the middle of a wasteland. Every year, after enduring bitterly cold winters, the city inhabitants feel a sense of impending doom rather than joyful anticipation of the coming spring.
When spring returns, a terrible Beast (Nian) rampages through the wasteland, hungry and angry. Each year, it will ravage the city. Taking a few of its inhabitants. Spring sacrifice. One year, a inhabitant of the city decides to take on the Beast, challenge Nian, break its shackles of terror. He gathers the city and devises a plan against the Beast. Lets plant bright Red banners, bright Red flags and bright red Fire-Crackers as a planned defence against the Beast; surprise and terrify the Beast.

The inhabitants mumbled among themselves. Fear was ingrained in them. What if the plan failed? What if … what if? But the brave hero said break free. Why live in fear? Why wait for death? Why?

So the plans were put in place. Spring beckoned. That unmistakable crispness of a new life cycle was in the air. Familiar fear gripped the city folk. Soon, the terrible howl of the awakened Beast could be heard. The trembling folk hiding behind the city walls hid in the shadows. Will their ploy work?

Across the wasteland, the thunderous gallop of the Beast grew louder and louder. At the city walls, the Beast batters down the token locked gates and enters for its prize. The city folk act in unison : torches flare, fuses are lit and a cacophony of sound and color assaults the Beast. The Beast is beaten, it recoils in fear and runs away back into the wastelands. The inhabitants are overjoyed. Come the next spring, the city repeats this defence. Again and again, year after year, against a thinner and thinner Beast. Until one year, the Beast comes no more. It has died in the wastelands. But the city repeats this defence year after year when spring comes even when the Beast is no more.

The city is safe and secure now. In the middle of a threatening wasteland.

One year, in the heat of summer, a few white elephants from the wasteland enter the city via a forgotten and disused city entrance. They meander into a disused square, ambling aimlessly. Some children, seeing such a delightful sight, started playing with the docile creatures. It was a pleasant surprise for the children. They have never entered the wasteland and knew nothing of it.

The adults were horrified and appalled. In their adult eyes, it was a fearsome sight. For ensconced deep in the consciousness of these people was the specter of the Beast from generations ago. Told to them by their parents and their parents’ parents. Beast from the wastelands. Such a threat. Such possibility of a throwback to fear and instability embodied in the time of Nian, the Beast. The city folk come to a quick consensus, History has taught them so. They launch into their defensive postures: the children are ushered away, assault teams circle the white elephants. On cue, the red banners are unfurled and firecrackers lit. Crashing sound and bright color rush the senses of the white elephants. Terror, confusion. The white elephants stampede out of the city back into the wasteland. The children are educated to the horrors of the Beast, of the wasteland. From the city walls, hang the red banners and prepared firecrackers in spring, summer, winter and autumn. Perpetual vigilance. No more surprises from the wasteland.

The city is always safe and secure now. In the middle of a threatening wasteland.


Some of the children who played with the white elephants cannot forget the feeling of delight and discovery which the presence of the creatures wrought in them. The creatures brought something from the wasteland to them. Something they have never experienced, protected in the city as they are.

One night, the children slip out from the city. They find the white elephants in their sanctuary by a small lake. They scampered joyfully to the creatures.


The creatures shied away from them. Fearful of their presence, the white elephants kept moving away from the children. The children cajoled and called out, but the white elephants kept their distance. The red-garbed children sat by the banks of the lake. Dejected. The white elephants across the lake. Wary.

And under the night sky of fading stars and a turning moon, the wind whistled across the wasteland like a collective sigh. Rippling memories of delight, fear, joy and danger in the minds of all the beasts in the wasteland.

"For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none ...

And the chain gang beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again ... More than the rest, they killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last. Only when she was dead would they be safe ...

Her past had been like her present, intolerable, and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color."

-- Toni Morrison, Beloved


Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice story! but where is the part about dissing the Man? i missed it.

2:43 AM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

dissing the Man?

ahaha, well it was in your mind wasn't it?

the challenge here is to think about who should be dissed. to be honest, as i ended the entry, i did not know where the blame lay.

hence, the collective sigh of all the beasts in the wasteland.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous gayle said...

There's not much point attributing blame to any one party. That which transcends time, and the plethora of parties involved, would seem to be systems; a concatenation of instances and circumstances that make things what they are, a system to be changed. Is the Beast to be blamed, or the elders, or the children for not taking earlier initiative? Perhaps all and none, but the -system- is xenophobia and reactionary patterns. Much the same here in Singapore - figuring out the system and how to change it is more important than attributing blame on anyone, civilian or PAP, etc.

8:07 AM  
Anonymous T.T. said...


that is a good point. I think people tend to focus on the blame game when the fault lies at the structural level. From my reading of this entry, I thought xeno's ending suggests this ... but as per usual its hard someitmes to get at what he drives at.

12:59 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home