There’s no doubting that the stories at the core of Chinese New Year have had an enormous effect on the civilisation. The 12-year cycle zodiac is a more than 4,700-year-old method of marking time, and while some of the stories are meant for children others show a sense of creative wordplay and compassion for others so as to give important life lessons.
What’s it all about?
The Chinese New Year story is about saying goodbye to the year and marking time. It was integral to farming and planning annual events. There are a couple of stories that are more common depending on where in the Sinosphere you look.
One story of CNY is about the start of time, and gives a narrative to why cats hate rats. According to legend, the Jade Emperor decided to segment time into cycles of 12 years, so he devised a race among the animals. In the race, the animals had to cross a river to the finish, so the rat and the cat asked the strong ox to give them a ride across the fast water. But the cunning rat betrayed the cat, pushing her into the water and riding the ox to the other side, only to jump off and race to the finish line for first place. The ox followed and the rest is, sort of, history.
This coming cycle we will switch from the ram/goat/sheep to the ninth zodiac year of the monkey. In that time the year takes on the characteristics of the monkey, according to the mythology. So expect tricks and turns from the cunning animal spirit.
WATCH: The Chinese zodiac story

But there’s another story, not widely told in Hong Kong but illuminating to the traditions of the holiday, especially fireworks, the colour red and lion dances.
There was a beast named Nian who would hide for a year and raid villages at the time of the lunar new year. Nian, a lion-headed bull often represented by lion dancers, has an Achilles heel – he’s afraid of loud noises, fire and the colour red. Strings of firecrackers popping off in the street were meant to ward off Nian’s return each year. Not incidentally, nian means both year and grain and the story incorporates giving charity to those less fortunate, and sending off the old year with a bang.
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