Kate Dudding: A New Year's Story

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The story I have to share with you today is called "A New Year's Story" from the book Tales from a Taiwan Kitchen by Cora Cheney, published by Dodd, Mead & Company, 1976.


Most cultures celebrate a holiday during the coldest, darkest part of the year. I'm sure you can think of some of these holidays.

In Taiwan, the people also celebrate a holiday in the coldest, darkerst part of the year. Many different groups of people live in Taiwan: the people who settled there many, many years ago, and different groups of people who came from different places in mainland China at different times. Each of these groups has their own traditions and stories. However, most of these groups celebrate the Lunar New Year, what we call Chinese New Year, the same way. This holiday falls sometime between mid January and mid February. People light firecrackers at dawn. They also put blood-red papers around their front doors; good wishes for the new year are written in beautiful writing on the red papers. This year, I saw some of these papers in the Chinese restaurant in my town.

This story is one of the stories that explains why people do these things.

Long, long ago, when powerful dragons still lived on the land and in the seas, no one in Taiwan celebrated the Lunar New Year. In fact, for one very unhappy fishing village, it was the worst day of the year.

Someone from the village had killed a dragon out a sea, which was a dreadfully unlucky thing to do. The ghost of the dragon came back every year at dawn on the Lunar New Year, and terrified this village.

Each year, the dragon ghost would appear before them at dawn, shaking his horrible head. "I am hungry. Give me a first-born son to eat!"

"No! NO! we won't!", the villagers all cried. "We won't give you a child to eat!"

"Then I will kill you ALL!", and the dragon ghost breathed his hot, stinking, evil breath all over them. The villagers began to choke, and realized that the dragon ghost _could_ kill all of them, just like that. So reluctantly, very reluctantly, they agreed that it was best to have one person die than all of them. You see, they always hoped that the dragon ghost would never come back. But year after year, the dragon ghost did come back, and family after family had to sacrifice its first-born son.

One year, the young Widow Teng's name was on the top of the list to sacrifice her only child, a beautiful boy five years old.

As was the custom, 4 days before the Lunar New Yea the Taoist priest left the temple and walked through the village to tell the unfortunate family. As he was walking around the cove, to where the Widow Teng's tiny cottage was, the villagers asked hesitantly, "W-w-where are you going this year?"

"To the Widow Teng's."

"Oh no, that's her only child. Ohhh.", they replied.

The Widow Teng's neighbors saw the priest enter the tiny cottage and they expected to hear wild cries when the Widow Teng heard the news. But they heard no sound at all. When the priest left, they rushed over to see what was happening -- maybe she had fainted. But no, she was just sitting, thinking.

"Did not the priest tell you the news?"

"Yes, he told me," the Widow answered calmly.

"But why are you not crying?"

"I do not have time to cry.", the Widow Teng told them. "I am thinking of a way to outwit the dragon ghost. He will not get my son."

For 3 days and 3 nights she paced the floor, trying to think of a plan.

She paused sometimes to watch her son play in the yard, climbing the little hill and proclaiming himself lord of all he saw.

She prayed at her family altar to her ancestors, and to all the gods whose names she knew for help.

She sat beside her son as he slept, sometimes gently stroking his face, the face that was so like his father's.

She asked the fortune tellers and the priests and everyone in the village.

But no one knew what to do -- you can't kill a dragon ghost nor lock it out. What else could she do ?

Finally on that last afternoon before the Lunar New Year, she fell asleep exhausted on the floor in front of the family altar.

Her little son saw her when he came inside. "I must not wake Mother", he thought, "And, what else does Mother always say? I must not wake her because she might be dreaming. And, and... And I must not walk between her and the altar, or else I will cut off her dreams."

So he carefully walked around his mother and put himself to bed.

He was right, she was dreaming. Because she had not slept for 3 nights, the dreams which would have come to her one by one now all crowded in together in a confusing mass. Dreams of dragons and ghosts, fright and fear, anger and innocent children and sorrow, blood and great noises and joy all swirling about her mind.

She woke up a few hours before dawn. She gently shook her aching head and the dreams fell into a pattern.

Dragons, the dreams told her, are afraid of two things. They are afraid of the sight of blood and they are afraid of loud noises. When someone is afraid, they usually run away.

"I have a plan at last. I will put blood over my door, and I will make so much noise that the dragon ghost will be frightened and run away."

"The blood ... I am so poor that I do not even have one chicken to kill for its blood." So she took her sharp knife and pricked her finger, letting the blood drip on a rag until all the drops ran together. She hurried outside into the cold night air. Then she hung the rag up over her door.

"Now for the loud noises. Firecrackers are best. But I don't have any. I have no money for them. The store is not open ... Ah, the bamboo!" She knew that when pieces of bamboo are burned, they split apart making a terrible noise. Taking her sharp knife again, she went out into the bitter cold air to cut a dozen large pieces of bamboo. In front of her door, underneath the cloth, she carefully made a pyramid so the bamboo would burn quickly and explode at the same moment.

"But when should I light the fire? I have to light it at just the right moment, not too soon and not too late, so that it will explode in the dragon ghost's face." She lit a small torch and crouched in her doorway in the bitter cold air, waiting for dawn and the dragon ghost.

She waited and waited. It seemed as if the sun was frozen below the horizon and would not rise that day. It was so quiet that all she could hear was the thump, thump, thump of her own heart. Eventually the stars started to disappear from the sky, the sky turned from black to dark blue, to dark grey.

Faintly she heard the dragon ghost's roar.

"Is it time to light the fire? No, the dragon ghost is too far away."

Everyone else in the village was huddled in their beds, underneath many quilts and blankets. But none of the adults were asleep. How could they sleep when they knew that the Widow Teng was waiting for the dragon ghost?

Then she heard the dragon ghost's roar again.

"He must be down in the center of the village, around in the next bay. Is it time to light the fire? I think so, I hope so, I pray so."

So the Widow Teng lit the pyramid of bamboo with her torch and sat back to wait again.

She began to hear the dragon ghost breathing. The breathing grew louder and louder.

Then she could see the dragon ghost, at the end of her lane. She kept looking from his horrible head to her little bamboo fire.

The dragon ghost stopped in front of her cottage and roared so loudly that her bones shook.

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! The bamboo fire exploded. The dragon ghost jumped, and then he saw the bloody cloth.

Terrified by the sight of human blood and the exploding bamboo, the dragon ghost turned and ran from the village.

When the Widow Teng was sure the dragon ghost was not coming back, she leaned against her door, and finally cried.

Oh how the people in the village celebrated that day! Bells rang, gongs bonged, firecrackers exploded all day long! They had finally found out how to keep the dragon ghost away!

And every year after that, everyone in that village put blood red papers around their doors, and lit noisy firecrackers at dawn. The dragon ghost never came back.

Now all this happened long, long ago. But still today, people in Taiwan, as well as my town in upstate New York, celebrate the Lunar New Year this very same way. And some people, including all of us, know why.


Kate Dudding (518) 383-4620
8 Sandalwood Drive kate@katedudding.com
Clifton Park, NY 12065-2700 USA
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