Every 12 years the dragon takes a bow only to discover the snake is biting its tail while everybody sets off fireworks to celebrate the occasion.
The fireworks, in case you didn’t know, are there to scare the evil monster Nian. It is told that Nian (年 – the name means ‘year’ in Chinese) is a creature half lion half unicorn which dwells in the mountains. Once a year at new year’s eve it comes out of its lair to attack neighboring villages. But the villagers had learned that years and years of living in a cave has made Nian sensitive to loud noise and bright colors, particularly the color red, and that’s where the tradition of fireworks, firecrackers, drums and red ornaments comes from.
Nian was the star of a very successful set of McDonald’s commercials made for the Chinese New Year here in China. These commercials are essentially a kind of cultural fusion and you can learn a lot about modern China just by watching them. Pay close attention to the subtitles and don’t miss the Eight Miles style rap battle in the third commercial. East Side Vs West Side truly takes a whole new meaning here.
Okay, so the fireworks take care of the bad monster but eliminating evil is not enough. You somehow need to summon some good fortune and that’s where the character 福 enters the picture. Actually it doesn’t really enter, it is hanged on the door from the outside to bring good fortune and blessings to home and family. Deconstructing the character 福 can also teach you a lot about the Chinese way of thinking.
The character consists of two parts. The right part 礻 indicates the meaning – it started as a pictogram of an altar and it mainly signified deities, but today it generally means sight. The left part 畐 indicates pronunciation – it started as a pictogram of a full vessel but it gradually changed and now it is formed by combining a single horizontal stroke (that’s how you write ‘one’ in Chinese) with the elements ‘mouth’ and ‘field’. If one’s field yields enough crop to feed all the mouths in one’s family, then one is clearly blessed and has good fortune. By the way, part of the custom is to hang the character upside down because the Chinese word for ‘upside down’ sounds like the word ‘arrive’.