A Chinese New Year’s Story

Once upon a time, in a far away place, a small village lived in the shadow of a giant mountain. An even greater shadow loomed over them, however– the threat of the monster whose name mimicked the high, shrill wailing it made during the coldest of the winter nights — the dreaded Nian.

As the winter bore on, and the nights grew ever longer, the sound of the wailing Nian grew more and more intense, more plaintive, more piercing. Soon, it would not be able to help itself. It would descend upon the village in the height of winter darkness, smashing doors, swatting aside men, and swallowing their small tender children. And thus the villagers lived in fear for the day of the lunar new year.

One day, a traveling monk happened upon the village. He was wrapped in silk and fur to fight back the sudden cold of the mountain shadow, and wondered why the townspeople had such downcast looks and sidelong glances from behind their window panes. Old Zu, Hongjun Laozu to be precise, was in search for the Gate of All Wonders, but that is a story for another time. Instead, tonight, he just wanted a place to sleep and eat. So why were the people putting large bundles of food in front of their doorways? After traveling for such a long while, he had put his hopes in hospitality.

A local farmer told Old Zu that the people tried to hold the Nian at bay by distracting it with such food laid at the door. But night after night, the Nian would swallow up some offering and leave the people one step closer to starving and helpless.

That’s when the Nian’s cry lanced through the mountain twilight and bit into the people’s hearts.

Just like winter itself, Zu noted, which sups on our strength with its biting cold, until year by year, winter by winter, we weather away, children gobbled up by time.       

Hmm. Yes, well, the farmer had hoped for more encouragement than that. Maybe one of those warrior monks could wander by, instead of these philosophical scholar types? Old Zu nevertheless swore determinately see this beast for himself.

Under the light of the waxing moon, Old Zu struggled up a ragged stretch of cliff, with nothing more than a ration of water and his tall staff. But as he found a place to allow for a rest and a long sip of water, the darkness before him suddenly withdrew to reveal an even darker void, as if the night itself would shy away from the great beast that moved within– the Nian had appeared.

It’s massive frame was like a grotesque bull’s, it’s wide head a nightmarish lion. Two baleful eyes, fish-like and clouded, rolled toward the old monk, and its jaws popped open and shut, sending waves of rotten stink into him.

“Old man, frail man,” its voice was high-pitched wail of death, “Tonight you warm my belly!”

“Oh, Nian! You are such a powerful beast! But no one can be more powerful than man! I dare you to meet three challenges! If you can indeed overcome each challenge, then I promise, as the weaker creature, I will have no choice. I will submit and fill your belly.”

The Nian produced a squeal that sounded like a scratch against a slate, and bounded forward, forcing Old Zu backward up the cliff a few steps. His baleful head seemed to have no expression, but its head twisted and bounced, excited, like a dying leaf on a vine.

“Oh, Nian! If you are indeed powerful, I dare you to swallow the dangerous snakes of this mountain and survive!”

Indeed, the Nian bounded down the slope and found a deadly snake. The snake hissed with gleaming poison on its fangs, but with a quick gulp, the snake was gobbled up by the Nian’s wide, flat mouth, swallowed whole like wet, fat noodle. Laughing, the Nian leapt upward back to Old Zu, who barely managed to climb down a few steps himself. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”

Old Zu extended his staff toward the beast. “Oh, Nian! Your body may be strong enough to survive a poison, but is your brain adept enough to guess my name?”

The Nian’s bouncing head tossed its giant, hair-tipped ears, catching wind of some slight whisper. Indeed, far away and below the people of the village were chanting prayers for Old Zu and his mission, which the monster heard as plain as day over the stretches of miles. Roaring in triumph, the Nian jumped ever closer again. “Hongjun Laozu!” and again it’s high-pitched voice pierced the night. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”

The man scrambled back up the cliff just a little bit more. “Oh, Nian! Powerful by far! And I have dropped my prayer beads somewhere on the mountain in my haste to meet you. They are the color of fresh-tilled earth, and polished to darkness from countless mediations. I dare you to find them among the dust and dirt of the ground!”

But indeed, the Nian danced and tossed its body through the night of the wilds, sending whirls of fecund leaves swirling through the air. WIth his powerful wide nose, the Nian easily sniffed out that which didn’t belong in the underbrush, the monk’s string of beads! With a toss of a mighty paw, the beads were kicked unceremoniously at Old Zu’s feet. The Nian galloped back in just five sweeping strides, to lord over Old Zu with a whining shriek that must have been laughter. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”   

The monk sighed. “Oh, Nian! Such powerful ears, such powerful body, and such powerful nose! What creature could ever hope to overcome your strengths! We humans must have no choice, then! If I must warm your belly, please allow me to strip bare, as a clean gulp would go better for me than a long and laborious chew.”

First, Old Zu took off his white outer robe, folding it and putting it on the ground. The Nian grumbled low.     

Next, Old Zu took off his reed-woven sandals, placing them together beside the robe. The Nian grumbled and pawed at the ground,

Next, Old Zu took off his orange silk tunic, folding it too and placing it on top of the robe. The Nian grumbled and pawed at the ground, it’s anticipation flying off of him and hitting Old Zu  like wind off a newly dug grave.     

Finally, Old Zu took off his tan pants, revealing red underpants beneath.

At the sight of the red underpants, the fish-like eyes of the Nian rolled back in horror, and his whole body nearly twisted to follow, recoiling from the brightness of the color.

With a pointed scream that nearly split the rocks nearby, the Nian send all his breath out in lament. “Old man, old man! Old man, with my most hated color!”

“Ah-ha!” Old Zu laughed, proud of his red underwear. “I knew it! This is why the Nian must swallow the babies and old men he eats! There can be no blood nor sight of red! You are surely the most pitiful and toothless creature of all!”

The Nian did not wait until the end of Old Zu’s gloating. Blinking and balking, choking and gasping on the sight of pure red, the beast receded into the darkness.

In his excitement, Old Zu didn’t realize he leapt, danced, and sang his way back to the village, still clad only in his underwear!

As Old Zu exclaimed, every year you must remember the Nian.

Remember his belly, and on the coldest night, beware that he will come, seeking people to swallow whole!

Remember his ears and nose, and in the coldest hour on the coldest night, light firecrackers to create explosions of sound and smoke!

And Remember his eyes! And every day hang lantern of red in the streets and banners of red on your doors!

And remember Old Zu, saving the town with his bravery, wisdom, and silly, lucky underwear!     

Story by Danny Wall, adapted from Chinese legends


The Legend of the Dragon Boat Race


Once upon a time, there was a great poet. Qu Yuan’s had a gift to see wonder and passion in all things and to capture such truth in pictures created by words. So great was this gift, that Qu Yuan became highly respected throughout the Chu empire, and the king himself asked him to stay by his side.

The king and Qu Yuan would often sit in the garden and listen quietly to the stillness of the water in the great pond. The king would offer a word to capture the moment, and Qu Yuan would consider it briefly, then speak the correct word. It became a great game, and the king and Qu Yuan became great friends.

One day, the king was more troubled than usual. He couldn’t even hear the stillness of the pond. “War,” the king finally spoke. Qu Yuan looked at his friend. “Peace,” he corrected him. But the king was worried about the growing conflict warring states. Any moment of war was too long, and it was now long past a mere moment. That day, Qu Yuan spoke about the wonder and passion and truth in the capital city of Ying and of the people of the Chu empire. The king was moved, and declared that Qu Yuan should be his Left Minister.

However, other ministers of the court resented Qu Yuan. They couldn’t understand his words that spoke of wonder and passion, or were angry and jealous of his favor with the king, which might really be the same thing. Their power over words were not of truth but slander and malice. They spun many stories of prose for their king, who finally erupted in rage. Qu Yuan was exiled, far to the south.

Qu Yuan’s words could not be stopped. He found himself on spiritual journeys, in conversation with spirits and ancestors, and with more and more truth in poem form. The townspeople marveled how a man could be a bulwark against such foes as Apathy, Disinterest, and Acquiescence, but it was clear: the more Qu Yuan put his spirit into his words, the more his body wasted away. Every day, Qu Yuan would go to the Face Reflection Well and peer inside, lost in the now-gaunt image of himself. He saw the truth of himself, too; the grip that his ideals had on him. He could never understand how the great but humble state of Chu could ever yield to the threat of the Qin.

And so it was that, when the city of Ying was finally swallowed in the relentless rising tide of Qin, there was only one more poem left inside the thin frame of Qu Yuan.

His brush left the paper. Qu Yuan’s eyes took in the mighty Miluo River. His hands struggled to lift the mighty rock. His feet stumbled towards the shore.

The townspeople waved a cheery hello until the strangeness of Qu Yuan’s stumblings made them pause. The fisherman’s boy was the first to call to rally the boats, but Qu Yuan had already submerged himself to his waist. The longboats were truly racing now, the fisherman’s boy leaning nearly prostrate from the prow, slapping the sides to keep the rowers in time. But it was too late.

Qu Yuan’s head had gone missing below the surface. Only a few bubbles remained on the surface, trailing toward the middle of the river.

The fisherman’s boy reached the end of the bubbles first, and people from the shore cried out a cheer as he grabbed at something in the water. He held high a bit of cloth used to bind Qu Yuan’s headpiece to his hair, but that was all. The cries turned to crying. And soon, the evening turned to dark.

Deep into the evening, the fisherman, his boy, and several friends of Qu Yuan sat in various longboats in a vague circle around the very spot. They were tired, but they continued to idly toss in bits of rice into the water. They must keep the fish distracted! What an improper ending for such a dignified man, to be eaten by fish! Day by day, however, and one by one, the longboats and friends had to disappear.

The fisherman’s boy threw the last bit of his rice into the water, then sighed. He had to go back, too. The sun kept rising, the wind kept blowing, and the stomach continued demanding to be fed; no matter that it was now a Chu sun and not a Qin sun, nor if it were now Qin winds and Qin stomachs.

But the townspeople knew the power of words. They would remember Qu Yuan’s walk into the river as a proud legend of a man sacrificing himself for the unrequited love of a city that died. And every year, on the fifth day of the fifth month, they would race the longboats and eat triangles of rice and hope and search once again for the wonder and passion and truth in the world around them.

— by Danny Wall
For further reading: Qu Yuan Wikipedia Biography

Magic Moments: Kaohsiung Arts Festival


Once again, it was time for another outdoor movie concert on the lawn of the Kaohsiung Art Museum. This time, the orchestra played a selection of scores from famous movies.

It was a nice touch to add visuals featuring clips from the movies– and what’s more, every clip had a theme running through it. Every movie had *something* about flying, whether it was dragons, airplanes, or even just a leaf or a feather. The combination of soaring visuals and swelling music was, dare I say it, quite uplifting.

Here’s the playlist in Mandarin Chinese, with a VERY tongue-in-cheek English translation. As you can see, the translated movie titles are very close to their original version, so some liberties must be taken, but it’s all for the sake of humor I assure you.

馴龍高手 = Tamed-Dragon Expert
(How to Train Your Dragon)

侏儸紀公園 = Short Age of Cleverness Park
(Jurassic Park)

阿凡達 = Afanda
(Avatar, or literally, “Amounting to Mediocrity.”
Take that, James Cameron!)

阿甘正傳 = Li’l Sweet’s Biography
(Forrest Gump)

外星人 = Foreign Star-Man
(E.T. the Extraterrestrial)

哈利波特 = Hali Boteh (lit., Keen-Laughter Special-Wave)
Harry Potter

回到未來 = To Return to the Future
(Back to the Future)

星際爭霸戰 = Interstellar Power-Struggle Fight
(Star Trek)

印第安那瓊斯 – 法櫃奇兵 = Yidianna Qiongse – Law-Cupbord Raid (lit., Seal
 Stillness Jade – Law-Cupboard Raid)
(Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark)

   and the encore? It wasn’t listed, of course, but near as I can tell it was:

神鬼奇航:鬼盜船魔咒 =
Strange Spirit Boat : Cursed Ghost Pirate Ship
(Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)


Translating Tim Burton from Chinese

Kaohsiung Spring Arts Elfman

From the Kaohsiung Spring Arts Festival: http://www.ksaf.com.tw/home01.aspx?ID=1

Last weekend, there was an open-air orchestra concert in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, attended by over 6,000 people packed densely into the lawn of the Arts Museum. It featured Danny Elfman’s score to Tim Burton films, namely:

巧克力冒险工厂: Chocolate Adventure Factory

皮威历险记: Pi Wei’s Adventure

阴间大法师: Hell’s Guru

断头谷: Headchop Valley

大智若鱼: Wisdom Fish

蝙蝠侠/蝙蝠侠大显神威: Bat-Man/
Bat-Man’s Awesome Power

决战猩球: Decisive Battle of Ape-Planet

地狱新娘: Underworld Bride

黑影家族: Shadow Clan

科学怪犬: Science’s Odd Dog

圣诞夜惊魂: Christmas Nightmares

剪刀手爱德华: Scissorhands Aidehua

魔境梦游: Magic World Dream-voyage

Can you match all the titles?

(To those of you sanctimonious types, please note this post is firmly written with the "humor" tag in mind. Please adjust your umbrage accordingly.)