Premise: According to the mythology related to the Chinese New Year, a creature called 年 (also referred to as 年兽 — pinyin: nián shòu — 年獸 in Traditional chinese) was a mythical beast that "lived under the sea and in the mountains".

This beast used to come out once a year to attack people and eat them, although — always according to the mythology — it preferred children. Eventually the villagers understood that this beast hated loud noise and feared the color red (it seems this is the origin of the known red chinese lanterns), because it escaped when it saw a child wearing red.

Here comes my question: Although the story is interesting, I'd like you to focus on the language part of this question. I noticed fairly quickly the relation between the name of this beast, 年 which means (year) and the fact that it attacked once a year, during the spring, so around the Chinese New Year celebration.

Maybe it's a coincidence or maybe I'm just reading it wrong, but is this the origin of the term year or is it rather the opposite, i.e. the beast was given this name because it used to appear once a year?

In other words, is the character etymology related to this fact? If so, in what measure and what manner?

  • I don't quite get your question. Are you asking if 年 was named nián because the beast was called nián?
    – going
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 2:08
  • @xiaohouzi79 I was asking whether between the beast name and the word for "year" there is a relation and if so what kind of relation... :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 9:49
  • Ahhh, I got it now.
    – going
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 21:39
  • The myth about 年兽 is a folk story told by the people (usually the mother, or grand mother) with purpose to quiet the perceivedly undisciplined little child during the new year celebration, especially during the whole family gathering period. The un-submissive (usually noisy) behaviors of the little child often seen as lack of good teaching from the parents, which would then be used by the relatives to criticize, and shame the parents.
    – r13
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 22:26

3 Answers 3


I think it's just a folklore, because every time I read this story, I can't find the source of the floklore cited there. I never treat this stroy seriously.

The oracle form of the character "年" is:(note: one oracle character may have different but similar shapes, because characters were not standardized at all in that times) enter image description here

The upper part looks like a bundle of grain, and the lower parts look like a man. This shape depicts a man with a bundle of grain on his back. It origninally means "the grains are ripe and human being need it".Because the grain plants were ripe once per year(in ancient times, argricultural tech was very low), the meaning of "year" derived.

Below is the different shapes of "年" in different times,showing its evolution. The picture comes from a great online dictinary "汉典",however, it's only in Chinese. From left to right, the shape was used in "甲骨文(oracle,which is the oldest as far as we know)","金文(popular in 商and 周 dynasty, carved on bronze castings)","小篆(a standardized font, used in 秦 dynasty)",“楷体(the modern Kai font)". You can see that in 金文, the lower part became "千" and in 小篆, the shape was similar with the original 秊.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Wiktionary sites 秊 as the oldest version of 年. Not sure if that is the same one in your answer. If it is the bottom half is 千. The meaning being grain harvested after an extended period of time.
    – going
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 4:11
  • @xiaohouzi79 I edited my answer to show you how 秊 came out. Anyway, we agree that this meaning is related to grains, right?
    – Huang
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 6:11
  • Huang, my question was not if the story was real or not, I don't understand your first paragraph... Anyway, if that's the etymology, then it means that the beast was called like that because it came once a year? Are there references for this?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 12:44
  • 1
    @Alenanno I want to say: in my opinion, that story is fake, fabricated, and there is no such a beast(except in such a story). I have never found the source of the story and I find in the old dictionary like 《说文》 or 《康熙字典》, 年 has no meanings of "a beast".
    – Huang
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 12:48
  • @Alenanno First we have the character "年", and then someone fabricated such a story. To make the story looks real, the beast is called "年". That's my viewpoint.
    – Huang
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 12:51

In other words, is the character etymology related to this fact? If so, in what measure and what manner?

No, it is not. 「年獸」 is not a part of the character's glyph origins or the word's etymology, and is probably some kind of folk tale. I would say that 「年獸」 was named as such because "it attacked once a year", but this is a kind of myth that has nothing to do with the linguistic aspects of 「年」.

enter image description here

「年」 (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*C.nˤi[ŋ]/) was originally 「秂」, comprised of simultaneously semantic and phonetic 「人」 (/*ni[ŋ]/, person) and semantic 「禾」 (crops), depicting a person collecting harvest. This was later extended to mean periods of harvest, until the modern meaning year.


enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

「秂」 was later graphically corrupted into 「秊」, where 「千」 (/*s.n̥ˤi[ŋ]/) functionally remained as a phonetic indicator (but the semantic role of 「人」 has been lost).

Please note that 「千」 (/*s.n̥ˤi[ŋ]/) is made from phonetic 「人」 (/*ni[ŋ]/, written as 「亻」) and an ideographic distinguishing mark 「㇐」 as a horizontal stroke.


enter image description here

enter image description here


Later changes have continued to obscure character structure, until we get the modern form 「年」.



《尔雅 释天》:「载,岁也。夏曰岁,商曰祀,周曰年,唐虞曰载。」
《爾雅 釋天》:「載,歲也。夏曰歲,商曰祀,周曰年,唐虞曰載。」


载/載 means 岁/歲. 
In Xia dynasty, it's called 岁/歲; 
in Shang dynasty, it's call 祀; 
in Zhou dynasty, it's called 年; 
when 尧/堯 and 舜 were kings, it's called 载/載.
All of these mean "year".

Then you can see, 年 is just a word describing year, no others. All of these are still using today except 祀 which only means 祭祀 now.

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