Birthday Customs of the Newborn and Elderly
Chinese people put their family in a very important position as they regard it as a means to keep the family blood stream continuously running. And the running family blood stream maintains the life of the whole nation. That is why children production and breeding in China becomes a focus of all members of families. It is even accepted by them as an essential moral duty. There is a Chinese saying that of all who lack filial piety, the worst is who has no children.
The fact that Chinese people pay great attention to children production and breeding can be supported by many customary practices. Many traditional customs about preproduction of children are all based on the idea of children protection. When a wife is found to be pregnant, people will say she "has happiness," and all her family members will feel overjoyed about it. Throughout the whole period of pregnancy, both she and the fetus are well attended, so that the fetus is not hurt in any way and the new generation is born both physically and mentally healthy. To keep the fetus in a good condition, the going-to-be mother is offered sufficient nutritious foods and some traditional Chinese medicines believed to be helpful to the fetus.
When the baby is born, the mother is required to "zuoyuezi" or stay in bed for a month in order to recover from the fatigue. In this month, she is advised to stay at home and not to go outdoors. Cold, wind, dirty air, and tiredness are said to exert bad effect on her health and thus her later life.
A good name for a child is considered equally important. The Chinese think a name may somehow determine the future of the child. Therefore, all possible factors must be taken into account when they are naming their children.
Traditionally, two parts of a name are essential, the family name or last name and a character showing the generation order of the family. Another character in the first name is chosen as the namer pleases. The generation signing characters in the names are usually given by the forefathers, who chose them from a line of a poem or found their own and put them in the genealogy for their descendents to use. For this reason, it is possible to know the relationships between the family relatives by just looking at their names.
Another custom is to find the newborn baby's Eight Characters (in four pairs, indicating the year, month, day and hour of a person's birth, each pair consisting of one Heavenly Stem and one Earthly Branch, formerly used in fortune-telling) and the element in the Eight Characters. It is traditionally believed in China that the world is made up of five principal elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. A person's name is to include an element that he lacks in his Eight Characters. If he lacks water, for example, then his name is supposed to contain a word like river, lake, tide, sea, stream, rain, or any word associating with water. If he lacks metal, then he is to be given a word like gold, silver, iron, or steel.
Some people even believe that the number of strokes of a name has a lot to do with the owner's fate. So when they name a child, the number of strokes of the name is taken into account.
Some parents prefer to use a character from an eminent person's name, hoping that their child inherits that person's nobility and greatness. Characters with noble and encouraging connotations are also among the first choices. Some parents inject their own wishes into their children's names. When they want to have a boy, they may name their girl Zhaodi meaning expecting a brother.
The first important event for the newly born baby is the one-month celebration. In Buddhist or Taoist families, on the morning of the baby's 30th day, sacrifices are offered to the gods so that the gods will protect the baby in his subsequent life. Ancestors are also virtually informed of the arrival of the new member in the family. According to the customs, relatives and friends receive gifts from the child's parents. Types of gifts vary from place to place, but eggs dyed red are usually a must both in town and the countryside. Red eggs are chosen as gifts probably because they are the symbol of changing process of life and their round shape is the symbol of harmonious and happy life. They are made red because red color is a sign of happiness in Chinese culture. Besides eggs, food like cakes, chickens and hams are often used as gifts. As people do in the Spring Festival, gifts given are always in even number.
During the celebration, relatives and friends of the family will also return some presents. The presents include those which the child may use, like foods, daily materials, gold or silver wares. But the commonest are some money wrapped in a piece of red paper. Grandparents usually give their grandchild a gold or silver ware to show their deep love for the child. In the evening, the child's parents give a rich feast at home or a restaurant to the guests at the celebration.
Traditionally, Chinese people do not pay a lot of attention to birthdays until they are 60 years old. The 60th birthday is regarded as a very important point of life and therefore there is often a big celebration. After that, a birthday celebration is held every ten years, that is the 70th, the 80th, etc, until the person's death. Generally, the older the person is, the greater the celebration occasion is.
The Chinese traditional way to count the age is different from the Western way. In China, people take the first day of the Chinese New Year in lunar calendar as the starting point of a new age. No matter in which month a child is born, he is one year old, and one more year is added to his age as soon as he enters the New Year. So what may puzzle a Westerner is that a child is two years old when he is actually two days or two hours old. This is possible when the child is born on the last day or hour of the past year.
It is often the grownup sons and daughters who celebrate their elderly parents' birthdays to show their respect for them and express their thanks for what they have done for their children. According to the traditional customs, the parents are offered foods with happy symbolic implications. On the birthday morning the father or mother will eat a bowl of long "long-life noodles." In China long noodles symbolize a long life. Eggs are also among the best choices of food taken on the special occasion.
To make the occasion grand, other relatives and friends are invited to the celebration. In Chinese culture, 60 years makes a cycle of a life and 61 is regarded as the beginning of a new life cycle. When one is 60 years old, he is expected to have a big family filled with children and grandchildren. It is an age to be proud of. That's why elderly people start to celebrate their birthdays at 60.
Regardless of the scale of the celebration, peaches and noodles, which are both signs of long life, are required. But interestingly the peaches are not real. They are actually steamed wheaten food with sweet stuff inside. They are called peaches just because they are made in the shape of peaches. When the noodles are cooked, they should not be cut short, for the shortened noodles can have a bad implication. Everyone at the celebration eats the two foods to extend their best wishes to the long-life star.
The typical birthday presents are usually two or four of eggs, long noodles, artificial peaches, tonics, wine and money in red paper.
Written by Ye Qinfa.