What follows is fiction, but fiction mixed with truth. My grandmother did flee Gulang Yi island following the Chinese civil war; the gates of Intramuros were shut for Filipino troops during the conflict between Spain and America; and every Chinese New Year in Xavier School, the dragon-lion dance troupe performs in the quadrangle to great applause. Yet I find that the best way to tell the story of Chinese New Year is to return to the tradition of storytelling that gave birth to the holiday – to retell the fearsome tale of Nian, the many-toothed beast that is said to rise from sea or mountain during spring to feast on old and young alike. I hope you enjoy my version of the tale.
Under the sea its glowing eyes rise coupled with a grumbled roar which echoes past the thatched roofs of a village off the coast of Fujian, the sound followed by doors bolted shut and farmers rushing into candlelit homes. Thousands of glittering scales reflect torchlight and cast snaking shadows on terraces of rice, as whispers sound throughout the night, recalling monstrous names and tales of hellish demons holding scimitars. But as the heavy steps of the beast crush grain and earth, as golden-green and algae-stained scales drip seawater onto earthen road, the rhythm of one whispered name rises to fever pitch – Nian.
The curved body of the beast moves with an unexpected grace, and lithely traces a path through fishermen’s homes on Gulang Yi island. And as the villagers whisper prayers to forgotten deities, Nian’s eyes fix upon a house near the bay where he hears the cries of children. Then its gaze glows afire as snaked-body and sharpened fangs crash into doorways and splinter wood, sharpened teeth sinking into flesh, seaspray mixing in with blood.
In the morning, my great-grandfather’s boat comes into shore with a soft thud of rudder on coral, and he waits until the sun is nearly at the center of the sky for his wife and son to help him carry in the catch of marlin and swordfish lying heavy on the stern. But when they do not arrive, great-grandfather steps onto the mottled wood of the harbor dragging a netful of fresh fish behind him, heavy footsteps kicking soil and seaspray aside. He closes the short distance between the makeshift port and his wood-and-thatch home, and when he arrives his grey eyes find a splintered doorway, nose catching the foul smell of rotting flesh and the metallic tinge of blood. Splayed on top of the small bed where the bodies of his wife and son lie great-grandfather finds a handful of golden-green scales.
This is the third year Nian has arrived. Great-grandfather, having lost all to the sea, gathers all the fishermen who share homes by the shoreline to plot defense. Wandering storytellers, eccentric sorcerers, and Confucian historians are brought into council from the countryside; alchemists and bards arrive from neighboring islands; ships come sailing in from the mainland. The tales that leap from their myriad tongues all converge upon a single image – a dragon with sharp teeth, golden-green scales, and a terrible appetite.
Questions are asked, traded, answered. More stories arrive from trading routes and brown-skinned foreigners whose boats have deep gashes from undersea claws, and as great-grandfather sharpens his fishing spear, the fishermen begin to prepare gunpowder, firecrackers, and gongs. Red cloths of flowing silk are brought in from the treasures of the final dynasty and draped over doorways and thatched roofs. The fishing village transforms into a scarlet city, color rushing through its earthen roads and snaking all the way into the harbor’s mottled wood walkway. At the end of several months, the eve before Nian’s resurfacing arrives, and underneath the night’s new moon, great-grandfather stands with spear and firecracker in hand as torchlight flickers by the harbor-way where scratch marks are gouged into the wood.
Then the sea itself thrashes, ripples forming, waves higher than the tide should be as Nian’s glowing eyes and golden-green scales rise up from the water to face great-grandfather’s pale frame on the island’s edge. The beast’s sharpened claws bat at great-grandfather, who tumbles to the side and lights the fuse of his firecracker, then lobs it in between the wide and hungry eyes of the dragon; a loud echo cracks and burns throughout the twilight, blinding both beast and man. Then great-grandfather is the first to regain his vision – he rushes at Nian with an animal’s frenzy as the tip of his spear digs past golden-green scales to draw thick, flowing blood. But Nian roars and the force of the sound throws great-grandfather onto the earthen roadway leading away from the harbor, and torchlight reflects from the beast’s glinting scales, shifting shadows traced upon loam and clay; then the dragon’s eyes widen as its claws gash the side of great-grandfather’s stomach. Nian approaches with its maw open, already imagining the taste of bitter flesh.
But then the beast starts back in surprise, as figures in red robes encircle its snaking body, some breaking kitchenware, some banging gongs, and others lighting firecrackers, blazing past the night and striking Nian on its tough scales. The rush of scarlet robes, scarlet-draped houses, scarlet-painted faces and the deep tinge of great-grandfather’s blood wet on its claws blurs all the world into a kaleidoscope of color for the dragon. Then thousands of firework-sounds and cries vibrate within its ears – it is roaring, wounded, fleeing as more red-robed figures pursue with spears and harpoons in hand. Nian feels each pointed tip pierce flesh the first few seconds of the volley, but after that the pain that comes from separate wounds seems to be one throbbing pain, one ocean-redness, one sea-deep void, one gash giving way to golden-stained blood as wounded dragon belly-crawls and gasps into the shallow sea.
When great-grandfather regains breath, the wound on his side is patched up, disinfected by seawater mixed with herbs. As he inhales, all the villagers by his side cheer to see him wake; they tell him Nian has fled the red city by the harbor of Gulangyi. For many years, the beast does not return to those shores.
Miles and decades away on the island of Luzon, Emilio Aguinaldo’s troops surround the walled city of Intramuros. Aguinaldo, with voice raised in triumph, tells the men that years of weary battle are finally coming to a close. Centuries ago, the Spanish came from the sea with glowing eyes and sharpened swords, their sails flowing in the Pacific breeze, the prows of their ships leaving seafoam and blood in their wake. Their armies snaked through villages decked in golden-green conquistador armor, splintering doors apart and murdering children, mothers, fathers. On battlefields, the Mindanao Moros met them with curved bolos and rushed blades; on beaches, the spear-tips of Mactan warriors pierced past golden plate and drew blood which stained Cebu shores; but still the inevitable beast rushes forward and churns water and soil in its wake, until the marching of Spanish feet is heard on earthen roads, Gospel verses echoing as baptisms are delivered by the sheen of steel cutting jugulars open.
But years have passed and now the eve is near when the dragon’s golden-green scales and sharpened fangs are driven back to hide within the ocean, disguised as the sails and armor-plate of a conquering foreign nation. Now victory is close, and Aguinaldo is ready to rush in with blade in hand, firecrackers poised to fire by raised flags; all is draped with the red of Katipunero sigils, bandanas, propaganda posters lying low from rooftops and splayed underneath skies. They are gathered here for vengeance – now not just fishermen, but also farmers and tradesmen and altar-boys; tribal chieftains and the sons of datus; this multitude gathered with gongs and firecrackers and red cloths of old whose use has travelled across several seas, finding its way into the hands of brave men, their earth trampled upon by foreign footsteps for too long – but, as the Filipino army marches forward, they find the gates of Intramuros closed.
For it is not only Aguinaldo seasoned in the craft of war; it is not only Aguinaldo ready with firecrackers and spears and red, red steel. Within the walls of Intramuros, a dragon in the guise of Spanish men flees into the harbor, and an armada sails off into the Pacific to return into the ocean; within the walls of Intramuros, guns are aimed skyward and the sharp crack of grenades and saltpeter recalls firecrackers of old; within the walls of Intramuros, red drapes and red paint are spilled onto earthen roads and onto doorways to give the appearance of a bloody battle. The scales of Nian are replaced with the surrendered arms of Spanish soldiers, muskets and plate armor dropping onto the floor in a feigned rout; noise and color, sound and fury driving off a beast into the water, its eyes no longer glowing.
Then even as Nian’s body sinks back into the depths of history, the dragon already knows that it has heralded more scarlet to be fallen onto the earth in bursts of firecracker-sound and seafoam; the footprints of the beast leave large gashes in the soil, orphaned homes, and deep gouges within wood. After its slinking escape, Nian’s roar resounds in fires and in wars as Bonifacio is executed by treaty and treacherous bullets, as the spear-tips sink within the flesh of Luna, as Aguinaldo is chained by golden-scales and steel cuffs, surrounded by green boys and false men.
The old rush of the dragon – the old glow in his eyes – the old promises of blood and firecracker noise started by the death of my great-grandfather’s kin and the spear he brandished on the harbor shores – these stories are almost forgotten, until waves rush forward again onto the sand of Gulangyi and the sound of an arriving beast goes unheard by men, women, and children gathered underneath their thatched roofs. The new villagers of Fujian are descended from the rickety fishermen whose red city drove back a hungry beast, but their tales of old are dismissed now as fantasy and fable, as foreign machinery arrives and gunpowder is slotted into barrels, shining cannons.
As my grandmother sits by great-grandfather’s bedside there is a grumbled roar of waves which echoes past the thatched roofs of the Fujian village, and from great-grandfather’s mouth escapes a word of warning which she does not understand. Though some days grandmother digs up ceramic shards from underneath the sand, or sees stray scales glint with gold and sunlight, she thinks that these are only trinkets washed up from the Indies, carried by strong currents and false tides. So the grumbled roar goes on without her noticing until Nian makes his return, his old enemy now bedridden, bathed by flies and the sweltering heat of the sun.
Mao’s communist troops arrive off junk boats and this time the books they hold are red instead of golden-green, Nian no longer fearful of the sight of blood draped against doorways and mixing with salt and sea. The dragon’s teeth flash, caught within the shine of bayonets and the cruel smiles of soldiers who hold gun barrels against children accused of conspiring with the Kuomintang. Now Nian is tanks and airplanes and imported Russian rifles; Nian is mortar and cannon fire and the glowing eyes of Mao himself as he commands professors, teachers, scientists thrown into countrysides as laborers of earth. The dragon’s scales now glow with different colors, the beast patterned against his first defeat, his footsteps dragging greedily towards great-grandfather’s porch, riding on the bloody tide of civil war.
A communist soldier steps into a thatched home with gouges on the doorway that look like they were dug in by deep claws and sees great-grandfather, hacking and coughing, infirm and spread across his bed. The soldier thinks, this man is already dead, and with gun-barrel flash and firecracker roar great-grandfather’s skull splits as if gouged by a spear tip flung from a million miles across the world. His blood stains loam and leaves archipelagic drops on the floor, their pooled contents shaping out seven thousand scarlet islands, as grandmother runs from her home and watches the old fishing village burn like the glowing eyes of an ancient beast.
Now grandmother sits beside me in Metro Manila heat as we both wear clothes draped in red, and the morning after January’s new moon arrives, heralded by firecrackers and ampaos passed hand from hand. Then I wave a brief goodbye and walk towards the splayed body of a dragon with golden-green scales and wide glowing eyes, gaudy eyelashes and snaking torso, forked tail. I pick up a wooden peg attached to its head, fashioned from the splinters of a broken home decades away in time, and shake the body of the dragon back and forth, dust falling off the shimmering scales. The other members of the troupe join me, dressed in red and ready for the annual acrobatics of a dragon dance; the crafted copy of Nian’s body is light as we parade it in front of a cheering crowd, a school quadrangle filled three floors to the brim, drums and gongs playing in the background, applause like the sounds of firecrackers.
And as the dragon dances a few memories enter my mind – memories that are not mine but which nevertheless flit within the firings of my synapses, carried forth by seaspray and wind. The dragon’s golden scales recall the plate armor of conquistadors, dislodged war trophies as great-grandfather lobs a spear into the heart of a beast; the red of our shirts and robes and envelopes is suddenly the blood of fishermen lined up against walls and shot by Maoist troops; the sound of gongs and radio-static drums that punctuate our dance now echo backwards in time as guns point into the air, fired by American troops behind the walls and brick of Intramuros. All of this enters my thoughts for only a brief second, and then all is forgotten as the music pipes up with the cheering of the crowd. Nian’s body supple within my hands, I rush forward into the quadrangle, the swaying of a dragon’s golden-green scales catching grandmother’s eyes as she tries to remember the last whispered words of great-grandfather before his blood dripped archipelagic onto the floor.
But those words have slipped her mind, and the dragon’s scales shimmer underneath the noon-sun’s light like the torches of a fishing village where the roofs are draped with red cloth, where a man with spear and firecracker-fuse in hand faces the ocean spray and waits for the low rumbling roar of history to arrive.