China: A Legendary Country
China is a fascinating country, with a rich cultural history of ingenuity, natural and human wonders, traditions and legends, art, festivals, and technological and industrial advancement. Use the stories below to immerse your students in some wonderful Chinese legends. Reinforce their understanding of each legend with creative activities such as:
- a dramatic class interpretation of the story
- an art project which retells the story or gives a visual description of one of the characters or a setting
- composing musical accompaniments using drums, cymbals or string instruments to accompany an oral retelling or dramatic interpretation of the story
- an oral retelling of each legend by students
- creating a Chinese opera mask for one of the characters or costume designs for one of the characters
Xin Nian Hao!
The meaning of the words used in this Chinese greeting are ‘Happy New Year’ (hao–good; xin–new; nian–year).
Nian, a very ugly and ferocious dragon, used to come down on the 15th day of the lunar month from the mountains to a village to hunt people. The monster was believed to have a huge mouth and could swallow several people at once. All of the villagers were very scared, so on these days they locked their doors before sunset and stayed inside.
A wise old man who lived in the village suggested that their fear and panic made the monster even bolder and more furious. He asked the people to work together to defeat the dragon by making lots of loud noise. They agreed that the next time the dragon appeared, they would all beat drums and gongs and burn bamboo and set off fireworks.
On one freezing cold, moonless night, the dragon travelled down to the village again. This time, everywhere it went people made such loud noises that it was forced to run off. The evil monster kept running until it fell down exhausted and the people were able to kill it.
Since then, during Chinese New Year, people light fireworks and beat drums and gongs to celebrate victory over the dragon and to frighten off other imaginary dragons. Ferocious-looking dragons, made of silk and controlled by the people inside them, are also part of many Chinese New Year celebrations. The colour red features prominently because it is also considered to be frightening.
Legends of silk
1. Long ago in Ancient China, some women were walking through a beautiful garden, picking various fruits from the trees. They discovered what they believed was the ‘fruit’ of the mulberry tree, but it was so hard they could not bite into it. They boiled the fruit in water to soften it, but were still unable to eat it. In frustration, they hit the fruit with sticks only to find that threads of silk were released. The ‘fruit’ were the cocoons of silkworms.
2. One day in Ancient China, Xi Ling Shi, wife of Emperor Huángdì, was sipping tea under a mulberry tree in her beautiful garden. As she sat, enjoying the peace, something hard fell from above and dropped into her teacup, disturbing her tranquil thoughts. Xi Ling Shi tried to remove the offending object and found herself unwinding threads of silk. The object was the cocoon of a silkworm.
3. A father and daughter had a magical horse that could speak and was able to fly. One day, the father went away on business and did not return. His daughter sent the horse to find her father, promising to marry it if it brought her father safely home. The horse was successful, but on hearing the promise his daughter had made, the father killed the horse.
The spirit of the horse rose from the body and carried the girl away. She was laid to rest on a mulberry tree where she immediately turned into a silkworm. Everyday, she cries tears of silk threads because she misses her father so much.
The Cowherd and the Weaver Maid
Niu Lang was a kind and honest man who had been driven from home by his unkind stepmother. He went to live alone in the country to farm and herd cattle. However, unknown to him, he was being watched from the heavens above.
The heavenly fairy, Zhi Nu, had been following the cowherd from her celestial home and she had fallen in love with him. Without informing her queen, she travelled to Earth and transformed herself into a beautiful young woman; a weaver maid.
When Niu Lang met Zhi Nu, he instantly fell in love with her. They married and lived a happy life together, Niu Lang farming and tending the cattle while Zhi Nu worked as a weaver. In time, they had two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. They continued to live a blissful life until one day the Jade Emperor, the god of heaven, discovered Zhi Nu’s absence.
The Queen Mother of the Western Heaven followed the orders of the Jade Emperor and brought Zhi Nu back home. Niu Lang was left distraught, but was determined to find his wife, the love of his life. Seeing his distress, celestial cattle came to Earth and moved among his herd. They offered to take the cowherd to the heavens to seek out Zhi Nu.
With his son and daughter, Niu Lang rode on the cattle and reached Zhi Nu’s home. But just as he was about to make contact with his wife, the Queen Mother saw him and, with one strike of a golden hairpin, she created an impassable river between them.
There the family remained, the lonely weaver maid on one bank of the river and her husband and children on the other. Touched by their love for each other, tens of thousands of magpies formed a bridge spanning the river so the family could reunite. Seeing their devotion, the Queen Mother relented and agreed that on one day each year, the seventh day of the seventh moon, the family would be allowed to cross the bridge to meet Zhi Nu.