Significance of the colour red during the Chinese New Year

The colour red has a great significance during the celebration of the Chinese New Year. The streets and the houses are all awash with red - red lanterns on the doorways, shapely red papers and motifs pasted on walls and people wearing bright red clothes. Red is clearly the dominant colour. Let's know why.

Chinatown, Kolkata

To experience the Chinese New Year one need not to go to China at all. One can experience them, even in countries like India, which have their own Chinatown. One such Chinatown exists at Tangra in the city of Kolkata. Since 200 years or even more, a large number of Chinese origin people have been residing in this part of the city. Their numbers are however, dwindling steadily. Many among them have migrated to countries like Australia, New Zealand or to North America and Europe. Around 2000 of them still reside in Kolkata, considering the city as their only home they know.

Red, red and red everywhere

Along with every Indian festival, they celebrate the Chinese New Year with much fanfare. During the celebrations of the New Year, they make sure that they use a lot of red colour in all their decorations. Those visiting Chinatown in Kolkata during the Chinese New Year are greeted to a visual treat. Beautiful lanterns of all shapes and sizes, red coloured papers, motifs pasted on walls and doorways, red coloured banners hung all over the lanes, changes the look of the place. Many even turn out in red coloured clothes. The dominant colour all around is red. With the lanterns lit in the evening, the whole place is transformed beautifully. Firecrackers are burst; the sound and the sparks of light from them adds to the spirit of celebration. All around there is complete merriment. Let's see why the Chinese give so much of importance to the red colour.

A Chinese legend

Legend has it that long ago there used to live a very frightful demon called Nian in China. It had a single large horn, a huge mouth with very sharp teeth and the body covered with heavy green scales. It used to devour people, crop and cattle whenever or wherever it got the chance to do so. So to save mankind and the animals, the Gods locked the demon in a prison. But the Gods used to release the demon once every year, so that it should not die due to starvation. This particular day was dreaded by the people, as the dragon would devour as many of them as it could possibly find. To save their skin, people used to leave some food at their doorways for the demon and hid away from it. That was the only way to escape from its clutches.

The wise beggar

On one such occasion on a particular year, an old beggar came to the locality looking for some alms from the town people. To his surprise he found that there was no one to be seen. Everyone had either run away or were hiding somewhere deep. After all, this was the very time when the demon is released from captivity every year. Not able to find anyone, the beggar took shelter near a house. Suddenly, he noticed a demon charging towards him. By sheer luck a big red coloured paper was fluttering by the doorway of the house. The demon noticed the red paper but continued with its charge and as it neared the house, it was struck by a mighty bolt of lightning, followed by the ear shattering sound of thunder. The lightning bolt hit Nian very hard. The lightning strike and the thunder, shook the demon badly. It wrongly associated seeing the red colour with getting struck by the lightning. Realizing that red meant danger, the demon avoided any house which had a red coloured paper/cloth on the walls or doorways. The beggar was thus saved. He managed to get some red coloured clothes from the house and wrapped it around himself. He then took a brightly lit lantern in his hands and started wandering the streets seeking alms. The demon, where ever it saw the beggar on the street, took to its heels in terror.

Red meant safety

Soon the town people also came to know of this trick to frighten the demon. So each year, on the day when the demon was released, people would wrap themselves with red cloth, paste red papers on their walls and doors, light lanterns and burst crackers. The terrible experience the demon had with the lightning bolt was still fresh in its memory and it continued to associate the lighting, the harsh sounds of the crackers, the red colour papers and clothes with danger. The demon strictly avoided any place that had even a inkling of the colour red. The terrifying sound of the firecrackers and the drums were too frightening for it. The demon was no more able to trouble anyone. The people continued celebrating the day as a New Year Day and this is how the customs were handed over from generation to generation. It became a custom to associate the New Year with red colour, lanterns and crackers. The Chinese still believe that this custom will keep them safe from the modern day demons.

This is the story behind the legend of Nian who was fearful about the colour red. The story has many variations. This was one among them. Legend has it that Nian was later subjugated by a Taoist monk and was made into his mount.

Article by Dhruv
Dhruv is an electrical engineer by profession. Apart from liking his job, he has a special love for writing and has often dabbled in writing scripts for skits and short plays. As a Content Developer at ISC, Dhruv is having a whale of a time, showcasing his writing skills.

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