The Nian Awakes
On the coldest night of the year, the beast awoke from its slumber. It looked like a Southern dancing lion with a lush mane and lambent eyes that lit the darkness. Its claws were hooked, like the stone guardians at the gates.
It shook itself as if to shake off the vestiges of sleep; the earth rumbled and shook too. Because the beast was tied to the earth.
It was a fearsome mythical creature that regenerated year after year. The land's people would catch it away with loud bangs of fire crackers and shouts of joy. Yet, for this year, it had been different. Times were changing. The winds smelled different. More foreign ships had docked. The land stood at the threshold of a new era.
The Nian growled as it surveyed the snowy landscape with its bright eyes. Its body was half-lion, half-dragon, half-everything. As it walked, cracks appeared wherever its claws landed.
It was time to wreck havoc, to cause fear.
On the coldest night of the year, the seas seemed to stir from their inertia. Of course, the oceans never rested and the currents swirled, bringing in life and death.
The princess awoke from her slumber, shaken from strange dreams that bubbled up like half-forgotten memories.
Something had awakened.
She sat up, shook her hair, and shifted effortlessly into her dragon form: a sea-green dragon with shimmering scales.
Her dragon sister had to know that a bad year was about to happen.
On the coldest night of the year, Xiao Xiao awoke from her slumber, feeling unreasonably cold. The brazier was still warm and her maid servant snored from the next chamber. It was Winter Solstice.
She shook herself and wrapped the blankets around her, shivering. She had a weird dream. She dreamed that Ming Zhu came to her as a dragon. She was a dragon too. They both swam in a churning river. Ice stung her scales. Ming Zhu was trying to tell her something:
The Nian is coming.
The Nian is coming.
The Nian is coming.
"The Nian?" Xiao Xiao said or tried to say.
And it was then she woke up, cold as if she had indeed been swimming in icy water.
Xiao Xiao shuddered.
It was going to be a bad year.
The palace had begun preparations for Spring Festival. Right after Winter Solstice, the servants removed blankets, clothing and assorted fabrics from the chambers and the stores for airing and cleaning. The floors were thoroughly swept, the precious ornaments wiped with tender care. Even the gardens were combed through with an keen eye. Still frosty with winter's grip, the grounds looked brighter now with fresh pots of spring flowers like cherry blossoms and peonies. Everybody anticipated a full blooming of the pink and red flowers.
Even the kitchens bustled with industry. Longevity buns, shaped like the most plump of peaches, emerged piping hot from the big bamboo steamers. They were filled with sweet lotus bean paste and delightful with Long Jin tea. The eunuchs had procured fresh livestock from the nearby farms. Crates of fish, still squirming and splashing, came straight from the fishermen.
There was an air of excitement. Spring Festival was coming soon. The old year was leaving. The past was the past. It was a time of new beginnings.
Xiao Xiao helped embroider new handkerchiefs with her mother and the women of the court. These silk handkerchiefs with elaborate patterns of phoenixes and flowers were meant to be Spring Festival gifts.
Yet, her heart was not in it. The dream still lingered. She shivered and huddled closer to the brazier. Her little sister, Xiao Xin, played ball with their dog, a present from their father. The little white fluff was bouncing around, making the ladies laugh.
Xiao Xiao touched the brocade pouch she hung around her waist. It held something special: a green pearl.
Where is Ming Zhu? Xiao Xiao thought idly. For a long time, the mind space they shared was silent, a river bed unstirred and undisturbed. Ming Zhu, where did you go?
For a while now, Xiao Xiao had thought Ming Zhu, daughter of the Dragon King, had simply returned back to her father and her palace under the sea. Yet, like the sea, Ming Zhu's moods shifted and were never still.
The Nian is coming!
Wasn't the Nian just a story to scare little children? A monster that came every year and was chased away by loud sounds, the colour red and joyful noise.
But if there were dragons, there were bound to be stranger beasts out there.
That meant the Nian was real. Xiao Xiao sat up and pricked her finger on the needle. She winced, sucking on the red dot of blood which welled up instantly.
Should she warn the palace? Tell Mother? Mother was already preoccupied enough.
What could she do?
Lotus Paste Bao
- Asian bao flour or all-purpose flour + cornstarch (2 cups).
- Cooking oil (1 table spoon).
- Instant yeast (2 tea spoons).
- Sugar (2 table spoons). (Can cut if you prefer low sugar)
- Room-temperature water. (Half cup, add if needed)
- Salt (2 teaspoons). (or 1 and a half, if you like)
- Canned lotus paste. (Ask your Asian grocer)
- Parchment paper. (You can also use banana leaf, if they are available. Cut them into squares)
- Add flour, instant yeast and sugar into a mixing bowl. Add water and oil. Mix until the dough comes together. Continue to knead for 5 minutes.
- Add the salt and kneel until the dough is smooth.
- Let the dough rest for 15 minutes. Wrap it with cling wrap.
- Cut the dough into 12 equal portions. (10 is okay)
- Work with one portion at one time. Make a gentle dent into the dough with your thumb and add a small ball of lotus paste. You can use a tea spoon. Then gently pull and tuck the dough from top to bottom, until the lotus paste is enclosed. Make sure the surface of the dough is smooth.
- Roll the dough into a ball. Cup it gently with both hands and work the dough in a gentle circular motion so that it shapes "taller".
- Dab the surface of the bao with milk or water to smooth the surface.
- Place each bao on parchment paper. (If you are using banana leaf, dab oil on the leaf before you place the bao on it so that the dough will not stick to it)
- Let the bao rise to room temperature.
- Steam the bao over low heat, using the bamboo steamer.
- Steam for 15 minutes.
- After steaming, turn off the heat. Let the bao sit for 1 minute.
Serve immediately with hot jasmine tea.
"Have you seen the ships at the dock?" Xiao Xiao heard the servants gossiping at the back of the study chamber. "New ships from the barbarian West!"
"Not really. But I have heard that they seem to have grown in numbers," one of the ladies sighed dramatically.
Xiao Xiao pretended not to listen to the gossip. Idle talk, Mother always said, speaks of an idle mind. One of her tutors was a Jesuit priest who taught her Latin and a couple of the barbarian tongues. She could speak conversationally and even write simple sentences with these foreign languages. Yet, she still felt unease. The words seemed to have stirred up something.
A chill wind chose this moment to whisper into the chamber. One of the braziers blew out. Sheafs of parchment paper slid off the rosewood table. The servants stopped their gossiping to stoke the coals and pick the papers up from the floor.
Xiao Xiao remained chilled to the bone. She stared at her homework. Her words blurred into scribbles. Outside she could hear merry laughter. Spring Festival was coming. Everyone eagerly waited for the big reunion banquet on the eve of the Spring Festival.
She tried to stay optimistic. The dream haunted her. And she realised she missed Ming Zhu. The dragon princess had left a void in her heart and life.
Coincidentally, she had written "Crescere fortius cordibus vestris" with her quill. Hearts grow stronger, the phrase said. Indeed she felt her heart was joined with Ming Zhu's. They were dragon sisters.
The chill persisted right into the evening. Xiao Xiao attempted to entertain Xiao Xin who was now four and had found her voice. Which meant continuous chatter and questions like "Why?". Mother laughed, unfazed by Xiao Xin's energy.
Without the Empresses harassing her, Mother seemed to flourish and grow more luminous. The eunuchs were subtly persuading her to produce a boy child, at which she brushed them off with words that could freeze a lake. Xiao Xiao had caught the tail-end of the conversation and even then she giggled into her sleeves.
"I want to ride Barrel," Xiao Xin insisted, pouting at Xiao Xiao. She knew her big sister hated pouting. She was four and happy to test boundaries. Especially her big sister's.
Barrel was actually now Barrel Two, Barrel's grown colt.
"I am sure I can ask our fu wang," Xiao Xiao rolled her eyes skyward. Of course, die die would agree. He was so indulgent. He gave in to all Xiao Xin's requests.
"Ask him, ask him!" Xiao Xin pouted even harder and this time, glistening tears emerged from her bright eyes. Xiao Xiao recognised this tactic. She stared sternly at her sister. "Be patient. He's very busy!"
Xiao Xin stomped her feet and looked cross. "You lie. I just saw him."
"Enough," Xiao Xiao snapped. She was now seventeen. Marriageable age, as the ladies-in-waiting often told her with a twinkle in their eyes. She didn't want to get married. And she surely didn't want to get stuck with a tantrum-throwing little brat.
She ran outside, glad - for once - for the cold winter night's air. Her breath plumed white, like a dragon's swishing tail.
Almost instinctively, she gazed up into the night sky. It was clear tonight and the stars were bright gems strewn across a black ermine cloak.
A stray pink cloud drifted across the stars. It was serpentine-shaped, its form moving sinuously. Of course, that could be just the wind. The entire month had been windy.
Xiao Xiao stared at the dragon cloud.
Something was going to happen.