The creature would eat all the food and livestock found and even children, whilst the villagers would simply run away in fear. Until one day they discovered that fire, loud noises and the colour red would scare the fearsome beast away.
Thus the annual Chinese tradition of fireworks, firecrackers and garish red banners was born.
That creature was called Nián shòu [年兽] and it is from this mythical beast that the Chinese word for year [Nián - 年] derives. In fact the creature is still represented as a ‘lion’ in dances that are performed during traditional new year celebrations. There are regional variations of the lion, however with southern Chinese lion dances being more closely associated with the Nián than those in the north [Wikipedia].
The Lunar New Year is arguably the most important Chinese holiday and coincides with the first day of the first lunar month, which typically falls in February in the Gregorian calendar.
The many days of festivities are referred to as guò nián [过年], literally crossing or passing the year. It is a time when families gather together and enjoy traditional foods such as Chinese dumplings [jiăo zi - 饺子], steamed fish and sweet rice ball dumplings [ tāng yuán - 汤圆].
As with many Chinese traditions, even the food holds symbolic meaning. And much has to do with luck and fortune. For example, Chinese dumplings are supposed to represent the shaped of the silver ingots once used as currency in ancient China. Indeed, dumplings have had a long history as a fortuitous dish, especially in the north of China.
Meanwhile the more familiar deep fried spring roll [chūn juăn - 春卷], which is more popular in the south, is said to resemble ingots of gold.
Even the fillings of such foods may be chosen for associated meanings of good fortune. For instance, the word for Chinese white cabbage, bái cài [白菜], sounds similar to băi cái [百财], or a hundred kinds of fortune.
Meanwhile, pork and chives may be chosen since the character 韭 [jiǔ] in jiŭ cài [韭菜], chives, sounds like jiŭ [久], or long lasting, thus implying longevity.
Steamed fish is often served because of associated meanings of fortune. The Chinese word for fish, yú [鱼], sounds like the word for surplus or abundance, yú [余]. Some may even choose a carp since the Chinese character for carp [Lǐ, 鲤] is pronounced almost the same as both the character [Lì, 利] for "profit" and the character [Lì,力] for "strength" or "power".
One phrase that plays on these homonyms is nián nián yŏu yú [年年有余] which roughly translates as “Wishing you year after year of abundance”. However, the more formal new year greeting is xīn nián kuài le [新年快乐], simply meaning “Happy New Year”
And this year it is the year of the Sheep, Goat or Ram [The confusion is that Chinese often fails to differentiate between them and simply uses the same character 羊 - yáng, though of course one could say 山羊 - Shānyáng - for goat or 绵羊 - Miányáng - for sheep].
Less auspicious than other animal signs, it has even been reported that newly married couples have put off having children because many people believe that sheep babies tend to be docile and destined to be followers rather than leaders.
Of course all of the 12 animal signs are considered to have both virtues and flaws, with the dragon, horse and tiger considered the luckiest. But some animals have become somewhat maligned.
Indeed, those born under the sign of the Sheep are considered less adventurous and not overly fond of sudden changes or impulsive decisions.
Despite many having a cautious outlook for the Year of the Sheep, there will still be the usual flamboyant celebrations with pageants, processions and feasts laid on as the new year begins on Thursday 19th February.