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26 December 2020

LEGO® Chinese Festival review: 80106 Story of Nian

The LEGO® Chinese Traditional Festival sets quickly became popular with fans worldwide and now Lee (cityson) takes a detailed look at what's coming in 2021. Buying this set? Consider using our affiliate links: UK LEGO Shop | USA LEGO Shop | Australia LEGO Shop, for other countries 'Change Region'. New Elementary may get a commission. The products in this article were provided for free by LEGO; the author's opinions are not biased by this.


I was really excited when the two new Chinese Traditional Festival sets were revealed in November for their wonderful builds and parts, but are the actual products as exciting as the official pictures suggest? In this 3-part review series I will examine these sets closely, starting with the smaller set, 80106 Story of Nian. Since I have covered most of the new parts in the preview article, we will instead jump right into the models and take a more thorough look at the parts in my concluding article in a few days' time.

Instruction Booklet

In the preview article, I made a wrong assumption of how they would present the stories/information in the instructions. Instead of formal introductory paragraphs like the Architecture sets, they went with a more visual presentation. 


I applaud the decision as it breaks the language barrier, and the illustrations are simply gorgeous to look at. They even brought back some childhood memories, as the style of illustrations looks just like the ones from my primary school textbooks.

The Story of Nian


Nian is a mythical creature from Chinese folklore. Every year, it will come out of the sea to feast on the villagers and their livestock. Villagers always had to go up the mountains to hide from Nian, until one day a wise old man came to the village and told them the weaknesses of this seemingly unstoppable beast - fire, bright red colour and loud noises. With the firecrackers, fireworks, red lanterns and banners, the villagers finally scared Nian away and this has since then become a tradition. The name Nian (年) in Chinese means “year”, some say the Chinese phrase of “New Year”, 過年, is derived from the story, as its literal translation is “Overcoming the Nian”.

Nian the Beast


The Nian is very posable with a lot of towball connections, from its limbs to its tail. I also really adore the unique Teal and Orange colour scheme, as it perfectly captures the bright palette used in many classic Chinese paintings. The Pearl Gold decorations look glamorous, and as stated in the preview article, I particularly love the repurpose of the Minifig Bandana in Pearl Gold (6253219 | 44740) as Nian’s whiskers.


One thing I am very curious about though, is the lantern on Nian’s tail, as I have never seen or heard about it before. Wouldn’t it be like Superman flying around with a Kryptonite necklace? I have looked through a bunch of illustrations online, and I could only find one that has the lantern tail feature. Oddly, even the illustrations on the instruction show a typical Chinese mythical creature tail, which is what I usually see. Regardless of the concept, I think it was quite a lovely lantern build, and it adds a pleasant touch to the beast too. 


Build-wise, the head of Nian is the most intriguing part of the entire set. I didn’t expect such complexity from the official pictures, and found it quite satisfying to put together the angled eyes. A very minor issue I have with the design was the use of Technic half pins to connect the eyes, as its frictionless nature sometimes leads to unsynchronized rotation of the two eyes when I move the model around, giving the fierce beast a rather silly face unintentionally.

The Northern Chinese Residence


The set includes the facade of a Northern Chinese residence, defending itself from Nian’s attack. Generally speaking, I think this is a really beautiful display piece. The heavy white snow contrasts nicely with the grey structure, setting up a great canvas for the colourful parts to pop.


The back of the model is much less glorious. The 1 x 2 SNOT bricks scattered across the backside allows you to change the arrangement of fireworks, or to even add a few more with your own pieces. I must confess that I am not a big fan of playsets that only have a facade with a shallow interior, but the fact that there is no interior at all actually doesn’t bother me as much. It commits to being a display, a backdrop for the Nian and minifigures to interact, and I appreciate that.


I want to give a special thanks to our reader Skye Barnick here for pointing out that the bar connections on the transparent parts have  only been “legalised” by the change in material in recent years. Before the change, transparent part connections would create too much friction. Interestingly, when I was building these fireworks, I experienced various levels of friction between the Magic Wands (6124) and the 1 x 1 Round Plates with Open Stud (85861). A few of them still feel slightly too tight to me.


Ridges are an important element of Chinese roof structures, as it seals the gaps where roof tiles at different angles meet and prevents rainwater seepage. At the same time, because of its prominent location, you can often find extravagant decorations on the ridges. I believe the type of ridge represented here is the “clear water ridge” (清水脊), which is the Northern reinterpretation of ridges in Southern China. The word “clear water” (清水) describes the minimalistic nature of these ridges, instead of detailedly crafted decorations, they only have a slanted piece on each end, namely the “scorpion tail” (蠍子尾). While I do appreciate the specificity in the design, I personally think the Light Bluish Gray Roller Skates (6217791 | 11253) and Thick Bar with Hole and Bar Handle (6343976 | 23443) give too much of a mechanical vibe, and as a result the whole thing looks a bit out of place.


Another thing I would like to point out in the roof area, is the illegal connection used for the icicles. The Candle (37762) does not fit perfectly in the Tile Special 1 x 1 with Clip with Rounded Edges (15712). I am not sure if the design team was aware and decided that this is within the tolerance, or it happens to be one of the rare cases where an illegal connection slipped through their eagle eyes.


The most intricate part of the build was the entrance. I really like how the rafters are represented here. They may not be supporting the roof as they should be in real life, but I think they absolutely capture the spectacle of a typical Chinese roof underside. I hope in future sets we will see even more complex and detailed roof structures. I also adore the two plants created with the recoloured Mop Heads in Bright Green (6334134 | 24085).

And here are the translations of the three festive banners in case if you missed out on the preview article:

  • Top (6331362 | 2431): “Out with the old, in with the new” (辭舊迎新), as I believe we all hope for a better year to come around the world now
  • Left (6331365 | 6636): “Enjoy yourself in the celebration of New Year” (樂在其中慶新春)
  • Right (6331363 | 6636): “Welcome the festival with a full house of friends” (高朋滿座迎佳節), and if you put the first two characters in the two sentences together, you get the Chinese name of LEGO®, 樂高. Probably one of my favourite Easter eggs ever in a LEGO set!


In this photo, you can get a better look at the two Threshold Guardians (or Menshen 門神) stickers on the door. Again, I believe it was a conscious choice by the designers instead of a cost-saving decision, as they are meant to be posters in real life. The original pair of Threshold Guardians are the two legendary brothers Shenshu (神荼) and Yulu (鬱壘) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海經), but over the long course of Chinese history, other gods or real life warriors have been used in the different areas. No matter which version this pair of minifigures are representing, they are supposed to block the bad luck and bring in fortune.


Right outside the doors, you can also find the 2 peculiar-looking round pieces of rock standing. These are the Chinese gate piers (門墩), the round piece on top is representing the drums people used in ancient times to welcome the arrival of their guests, but sometimes it would also just be a rectangular block. The surface of these gate piers are usually very well-decorated with auspicious symbols, and the more extravagant ones may even have a rock lion sculpture on top to guard the door. However, the actual purpose of the gate pier is to hold the door and its frame, it is a piece of rock where the hinge of the door is inserted, as represented in the rough, off-scale model I put together above.


As shown in the above image, the gate piers should be linked to the doors, where the door frame is slotted in the 1-stud gap between the drum and the door hinge. Therefore, I find it more sensible to move the two gate piers inward by 1 stud, such that they are up against the wall. This is the case I have seen in most real-life buildings, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are exceptional cases. After all, I am not an expert in the field, so I welcome any correction.


Another thing that caught my attention, was how easily the minifigures are walking in and out the doors. If you have visited a traditional Chinese building in real life, it is likely that you have encountered a rather tall threshold (門檻) at the bottom of the doorway. Granted, it is a more common feature in Southern architecture due to the higher average rainfall there, I believe you can still find these tall thresholds in many Northern Chinese buildings. On a practical level, they help prevent flooding and stop the wind and pests from entering the house, but there is more to it.


There is also the Chinese geomancy (or Feng Shui 風水) aspects. For one, it is believed that the movement of people at the doorway would accelerate the chi (氣)around the entrance, and the tall threshold can act as a dampener to prevent the chi rushing (氣衝) into the house, which is harmful. On the other hand, a tall threshold is needed to block the negative chi (or sha 煞) from outside and prevent the loss of wealth from within, especially if there is a large open space right outside the door like the residence here.  


Here is a quick modification I did to add a threshold. Beyond practical functions and feng shui, the height of the threshold is also a symbol of status. This may sound strange, but the threshold is symbolically the shoulder/back of the house owner, so it is extremely disrespectful to step on it when you enter. Instead, you should always step over it, particularly in temples. Not only is it disrespectful, it may even bring you bad luck.

The Minifigures


The minifigures in this set have some awesome new torsos, but I am a bit surprised that the majority of them only have single-sided face prints. In a set based on a story of battling a fierce monster, it is a bit weird to get zero upset/scared/intense second faces, but just one surprised face from the little boy. 

On a side note, I would like to point out that of all the minifig-scale snowmen we have got, this is probably my favourite version so far. I am also eager to collect all the 12 Chinese zodiac mascot minifigures, if this theme can survive another decade.

Conclusion

I will start with some nitpicking. If like me you are spoilt by the Chinese Festival theme already, you may find the building process of this set a bit too straightforward. There isn’t much you can do with the model either, as there is no interior or facility of any sort for the minifigures to interact with, all you get is a big empty piece of snow-covered ground in front of the facade.


That said, perhaps it is more of a compliment to the rest of the theme, as these are meant to be 8+ sets after all. As I have praised in the preview article already, I really appreciate the design team delving into the more specific areas of Chinese culture instead of just giving us another generic Chinese building with festive activities. Overall, 80106 Story of Nian is still a very solid entry to the theme, with its amazing selection of parts, and a visually stunning display piece when completed.

Continue now to my review of the larger set 80107 Spring Lantern Festival, which will then be followed by an examination of the new parts in both 80106 and 80107. Buying this set? Consider using our affiliate links: UK LEGO Shop | USA LEGO Shop | Australia LEGO Shop, for other countries 'Change Region'. New Elementary may get a commission.


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7 comments:

  1. I can't find anything to confirm my suspicion, but if you were plagued by a monster that hated fire and the color red, tying a red lantern to its tail might be an effective way to drive it off, as it would forever be fleeing the lantern that it can never escape. So, maybe someone dug this up in some obscure source and incorporated it into the model, maybe someone came up with the idea on their own and thought it would be cool, or maybe there was an error in translation and someone only thought this was part of the legend.

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    1. That was my original guess too, but in the one artwork I found where the Nian has a lantern tail, it seems to be standing quite comfortable and proudly with it hahaha... I suggest it might be more of an artistic choice, but I must confess visually speaking, I find it very cool too!

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  2. I'm sure they designed the candle slightly too large for an antistud so that kids don't lose them inside bricks, which is unfortunate, as it would have made it a lot more useful, and wouldn't have been an illegal connection here.
    Meanwhile some clone brands have parts that are just standalone studs that allow for easy stud inversion, and they even fit bars. Quite handy little parts that Lego will never have (or maybe in 18+ sets, one can hope).

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    1. Remember that a bar has to fit inside. Apollo studs get away with thin walls because they're so short. That would not be the case with a stud-diameter candle, where the bar socket is actully quite deep before the interior diameter is reduced enough to create a stop for bars.

      I'd love to have those parts you mention, but to stay "on grid" with System, it would have to have a flange that's as thick as a plate.

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    2. I don't know, tubes inside bricks aren't short, and they're as thin as studs with holes, and still pretty solid. Granted, you can't walk on a tube inside a brick & crush it, but still.

      Also remember that so far technic pins have been used for bar-to-bar connections, they're also thin. That's what the candle could have been, a cleaner, smooth pin. I'd have been LEGO, I'd have made only the ends of the size of a stud, and the middle very slightly thinner so that it can't be locked inside bricks.

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  3. Hmm, I would have guessed that the monster "Nian" rather was named after the year "Nian" than the other way around, although I don't think our oldest sources of Chinese writing would give a clear answer.

    I also think "Nian" with the meaning of "year" was loaned into Korean and Japanese, although that loanword is probably of a comparably late date.

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    1. Wikipedia claims that the oldest known Chinese dictionary (dating back ~2300-3100 years ago) defined "nian" as meaning "year". The next oldest Chinese dictionary (~1800-2200 years ago) defined it as meaning "ripeness of grain". Sounds a bit more like "year" came first to me.

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