Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 4 Research, Part 6: Chinese New Year

As I was reading about the interesting structure of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I started to think about a possible theme that could respond well to this type of format, and unite it with the combined sounds of a woodblock and a taiko drum. This is when I decided to use one of my favorite holidays from my childhood – “the most colorful, sensational and joyous of all Chinese festivals” (Stepanchuk and Wong: 1) – the Lunar New Year.

The New Year of Chinese lunar calendar, usually falls between 20th January and 20th February, depending on what date new moon appears. A constant accompaniment to this fifteen-day celebration is the sound of firecrackers (Fig. 1)– an icon of this holiday, which livens the festive atmosphere.


Fig. 1. Traditional chinese firecrackers

As Lu Xun described:

“Pallid clouds loom overhead, intermittently brightened by flashes of firecrackers set off to bid farewell to the Hearth God. Faint whiffs of gunpowder already fill the air before the ears can recover from the ringing echoes of the deafening bangs.” (Stepanchuk and Wong: 2)

It is a traditional Chinese custom to light firecrackers. They were first used to scare away evil spirits and demons and there are several versions of the tale that surrounds its origin and the origin of Chinese New Year. Legend has it that, long time ago, there was a demon known as Nian (meaning year in Chinese), with the head of a lion and a body of a bull. Some versions say that it lived in the sea, other that it lived in the mountains. Either way, it would come to the villages around the New Years’ time, eat people and destroy property.

There are several versions of the tale. In one version, villagers slowly discovered Nian’s weaknesses. For example, one time, people saw that the Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red. Not long after they discovered that the demon was afraid of cracking noises. Armed with the red color and loud cracking noises, produced by burning bamboo – an early form of firecrackers, they frightened the demon away.

In another version, entire village became the victims of nian, except a newly married couple and a group of children. It turned out that the newlywed had decorated their house in red curtains and they were dressed in red in accordance with wedding customs, and the kids were playing around burning bamboo sticks and their crackling noises.

I’ve found a third version, described by Yuan (168), where people were preparing to leave the village, when a white-bearded old man appeared begging them for food. Hurrying for escape, none of the people paid attention to him, except an elderly woman, who gave him some bread and told him to run for his life because of the demon. However, unable to persuade the old beggar to flee, elderly woman left her house at his disposal and ran away with other villagers. At midnight Nian stormed into the village, however found it vacant, so he searched for animals and fowls left behind by the villagers. As he was about to force his way into the elderly woman’s yard, he screamed in horror. It turned out that the doors were dazzling with red paper and bright with candlelight. Before Nian could collect itself, the white-bearded man appeared in red cloak, bellowing amid loud crackling of burning bamboo sticks behind him. At this, nian was scared away. Later, when the villagers came back, they realized that the old beggar could have actually been an immortal.

It’s also interesting to note that the expression Guo Nian, which now stands for celebrating New Year, originally meant survive Nian – the demon.

There is another important mythological theme that surrounds Chinese New Year. “Door plays an important part in religious rituals and beliefs throughout many cultures and is often considered to be residence of some spirit…” In China, it is appointed with special protective deities – called menshen or door Gods. (Fig. 2)


Fig. 2. Menshen – Door Gods, Shen Tu and Yu Lei

The earliest account of a pair of protective door deities draws upon a legend recounted by Wang Chong (27-ca. 100) describing two deities Shen Tu and Yu Lei. (Fig. 2) According to the legend, they were guards over the Gate of Demons, which was located under a giant peach tree on Dushuo Mountain, in the Eastern Sea. They would use rush ropes to catch any demons who exited through this gate and then feed them to tigers. Consequently Yellow Thearch (Huangdi) created an exorcistic ritual whereby peachwood images of Shen Tu and Yu Lei were placed outside gates, tigers were painted on doors and rush ropes were hung above entrances as protective measures. Soon, it has been widely adopted among the populace, where door guardians would protect three main architectural structures – the family household, the temple and the tomb, and other figures joined in this pantheon of protective door deity.

There is also a traditional dance that accompanies the Chinese New Year, called Shi Wu or lion dance. (Fig. 3) Since lion is not native to China, and the Lion Dance therefore has been suggested to have originated outside of China from countries such as India or Persia, and introduced via Cental Asia.


Fig. 3. Northern lion dance

Laufer (1444) describes that the lion dance first appeared in China under Tang dynasty, and made their debut at the court of the kings of Tibet about the same time. He goes on to say that it represents a form of the Indian mime or burlesque juggler, who originally exhibited tame lions and trained monkeys, wandering from place to place, entertaining crowds at fairs and religious festivals. Since live lions were not obtainable in China and Tibet because of their costly transportation from India, the mimes soon thought of an idea to represent the lion’s body by covering cloth and using two men instead of one.

On the other hand, according to ethnomusicologist Picken (201), the Chinese word for lion, shi may have been derived from the Persian word šer, which would to him suggests that the dance originated from there and not India.

There are however tales that insist on Chinese origin. Davis (60) described three versions. According to one tradition, originated in ancient China as entertainment for the Emperor. Legend has it that he had been given a lion by a nomadic tribe and it became his pet. When the lion died, Emperor became sad, so his attendants developed a costume to initiate the playful movements of the animal to cheer him up. Another talks about a lion which appeared in a small village and caused harm. A Kung-Fu expert went into the mountain, fought with the lion on three occasions, but lost each time. Then he trained some villagers in Kung Fu, and few months later, they killed the lion. In celebration they composed the lion dance. Third legend attributed the lion dance to a dream of Emperor of China, after waking up., ordered the palace guards to dance in accordance with his dream.

Whichever the origin, it is performed accompanied by the music from drums, usually shi gu or lion drum (Fig. 4), cymbals and gongs, where two or more dancers hold the head and body of a colorful papier-mache lion and mimic lion’s movements to scare evil spirits away, but also to bring good luck.


Fig. 4. Shigu drum

There are two styles, the Northern Lion – bei shi (Fig. 2) and the Southern Lion – nan shi. Both styles are categorized in the same way martial arts systems are categorized. The Northern Lion is danced in light playful motions, in an acrobatic style, specific to Northern Shaolin, with stunts like lifts, or balancing on a tiered platform or on a giant ball.  Northern lions sometimes appears as a family, with two large “adult” lions and a pair of small “young lions”.

Within the Southern Lion dances, there are two main styles – Guangdong, or Fo Shan, and Cantonese Lion, or He Shan. In both schools, the lion has one horn, which is associated with the previously mentioned demon Nian. Fo Shan is the style many southern Kung Fu schools adopt. It requires power in moves and strength in posture. Here is a video:

The He Shan style lion is known for its richness of expression, unique footwork, impressive-looking appearance and vigorous drumming style. The founder of this style is thought to be the “Canton Lion King” – Fend Geng Zhang in the early 20th century. Feng was born in a village in He Shan County and was instructed in martial arts and lion dance by his father and studied in Foshan before returning to his hometown and setting up his own training hall. He developed his unique version of lion dance, creating new techniques by studying and mimicking movement of cats, such as “catching mouse, playing, catching birds, high escape, and lying low and rolling”. Here is an interesting performance of He Shan dance:

The New Year celebration ends with my favorite – the lantern festival (Fig. 5), the climatic 15th night of the holiday. Mention that at its inception, over a thousand years ago, the festival focused on fertility. In these ancient times, devotional ceremonies were also conducted to, after the cold of winter, pray in light for plentiful spring rains.  Popular stories though concentrate on patriotism. In one tale, Zhejiang village tells about the defeat of the Mongols, regarded as invader by Han nationality, which occurred on 15th day of first month. Another folktale describes the ruin of the despised Lu clan by Emperor Wen of Han dynasty, which also happened on the 15th day of the first month.


Fig. 5. Lantern festival

My favorite is that the festival may have derived from the theory of three yuan (principles), where three of the lunar months correspond to three “officials” – the Taoist spirits, who look over heaven, earth and water. (Wei, 26) The fifteenth day of the first lunar month is Shang Yuan (Fig. 6) or the official of heaven, and because he is god of happiness (Turner, 412) bright things, such as lanterns should be lit.


Fig. 6.Taoist Official of Heaven

Through generations, more and more varieties of lanterns have appeared, such as mirror-like lanterns, phoenix lanterns, color-glazed lanterns and so on. (Fig. 7a) The lanterns used to be candlelit, but nowadays often replace by wall lamps. But blending of old and new tradition still exists. To illustrate, I visited the Harbin in the North-eastern China this year, when I celebrated the Chinese New Year with my family. This wonderful city with Russian influences, famous for its ice and snow sculptures and other winter activities, produces fantastic lanterns in blocks of ice illuminated with electric lights. (Fig. 7b)

Fig. 7a. Different lanterns


Fig. 7b. Ice lantern in the shape of dragons

Fireworks are also popular during the lantern festival. “Shining trees and sparkling fireworks weave a sleepless night” goes to describe the night of Lantern Festival. Popular is also the riddles stuck on the surfaces of lanterns for people to guess while enjoying different designs. Those who are ‘bright’ enough to solve these riddles return home with some rewards and the assurance of their ‘bright’ future in the coming year.

The four elements of this wonderful holiday that I’ve described here, I will use for my example. Take a look at it, to see how I’ve used all six parts of my research.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Traditional chinese firecrackers [public domain]

Fig. 2. Menshen – Door Gods, Shen Tu and Yu Lei

Fig. 3. Northern lion dance

Fig. 4. Shigu drum

Fig. 5. Lantern festival

Fig. 6.Taoist Official of Heaven

Fig. 7a. Different lanterns

Fig. 7b. Ice lantern in the shape of dragons


Stepanchuk, Carol and Wong, Charles Choy (1991) Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books

Yuan, Haiwang (2009)The Magic Lotus Lantern and Other Tales from the Han Chinese

Laufer, Berthold (1979) Kleinere Schriften von Berthold Laufer: 1 Publikationen aus der Zeit von 1911 bis 1925, Part 2. Herndon: Steiner

Picken, Laurence Ernest Rowland (ed.) (1984) Musica Asiatica. Volume 4 Cambridge: CUP Archive. pp. 201-212

Coulter, Charles Russell/Turner, Patricia (2013) Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities. Routledge


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