Creature Compendium

Creature Compendium: The Nian

Lunar new year (Chinese New Year / Spring Festival) passed by just a few weeks ago. The lion dance you see during the lunar new year celebrations depicts a legend involving a monster known as the nian.

The Nian

The nian is a ferocious monster that lived in the sea. Once a year, the nian would come out of the sea to devour people and livestock. It is described as having a long head with a single horn on top of it. Alternately it’s described as having the body of a bull, the head of a lion, and the horn of a unicorn. The latter description is what is used in the costumes in the traditional lion dance.

The lion dance reenacts the legend of the nian, and the villagers attempt to scare it off with firecrackers, making noises, buring their lamps all night and hanging red banners. The startled nian runs off to the sea, never to be seen again.

Every new year firecrackers are lit, drums are beaten, red is worn and lamps are hung. These are all part of the traditional new years celebrations in various parts of Asia. The new years celebrations were formerly known as Guo Nian (the passing of Nian).

Further reading:

Related creatures: Kirin

Region of origin: Asia, China

This monster is a lot cuddlier than last time right? If it can be scared off by firecrackers, it doesn’t seem all that ferocious to me.


  1. “If it can be scared off by firecrackers, it doesn’t seem all that ferocious to me.”

    LOL true. But… how often do you carry firecrackers around?!

    I love the Lunar New Year and the Chinese dragon dance.

  2. I love mysterious sea monsters that are built out of no sea-creature parts. Like a bull would be great for ocean diving. The anti-biology of various mythologies is legitimately wonderful to me.

  3. That’s cool to hear the legend behind one of these iconic images… Like many others, I’m familiar with the costume from television and pictures, but I didn’t know the legend behind it. 🙂

      1. Yeah, but it makes sense, once you think about it, for there to be a legend. People don’t usually pass down traditions that are entirely random – there’s almost always some reason and/or story behind it.

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