Sheng ri kuai le! Birthday greetings to you!
In China, the family is the heart of the nation, and children are the heart of the family. Having children is one of the Confucian moral duties. Of all who lack filial piety, the worst is he who has no children.
Before the child’s birth there are no celebrations or showers, a practice which dates back to the days when many children died within a few days of birth. Even today a conservative Chinese woman will try to conceal her pregnancy for as long as possible, lest evil spirits discover an impending birth and kill the child. She will think good thoughts, avoid funerals, and may even sleep with knives under her bed. The unborn child may be given a false, “milk” name to confuse or scare away spirits that might mean it harm. To protect the newborn child, the umbilical cord may be wrapped in red paper and hidden somewhere in the household. The mother and child will also be sequestered for the first month of the child’s life (zuoyuezi), during which time she is excused from all usual household duties. In conservative households, even the husband may stay away.
To announce the baby’s birth, a new father will give presents of red-dyed eggs to friends and family, an odd number for a boy, even for a girl; as well as money and wine to his wife’s family. The ribbons tied on the wine jar also indicate the gender. Some fathers choose to send out boxes of fruit instead. If you receive such a gift, it is appropriate to send the family gifts of walnut meats, brown sugar, or special cakes made for the purpose; and any money may be honourably returned as a gift.
The first major birth celebration in a child’s life is Moon-Yut, the month-old party. (This is sometimes called the “red egg and ginger” party.) There is a smaller celebration prior to the Moon-Yut, on the morning of the third day when the baby gets its first bath, but this is limited to close female friends and relatives. The tub is filled with water boiled with locust branches, and a string of cash tied with red silk is fastened around the tub. Each guest is expected to bring a small gift made of silver for the baby; and also places a piece of fruit or red egg into the bathwater.
But at the Moon-Yut, where the child is finally “locked” to this world with a gold or silver padlock and given their childhood name, all the stops are pulled out, and even the poorest families will invite all their relations to celebrate the child’s survival – with one exception. Anyone who is very close to a different happy event (such as a wedding) or sad event (such as a funeral) ought not to attend. The happiness ought to be that of the family alone; and the sadness of others should not sully it. After the second birthday, the pattern reverses: if the child’s birthday happens to coincide with another auspicious event or even with a senior’s birthday, it is the child’s birthday which will be “overlooked”, so as to keep harmony within the family.
If you are invited to a Moon-Yut celebration, it is very appropriate to bring gifts of money, enclosed in red envelopes (hong bao) for good fortune. Although the amount of money should be in an even number – odd numbers being reserved for cash given during funerals – four of anything is to be avoided.
Some Chinese families also celebrate the hundredth day of a child’s life. Friends and family are expected to bring chicken and fish for the celebration dinner, representing abundance and prosperity, but other gifts are nominal.
The last of the major post-birth celebrations is the first celebrated birthday, when the child turns two years old. It is also called the “second” birthday, with the pattern continuing into future birthdays: this ensures that the child will survive through the next year. A new year will be added with every new year celebration. This system of counting can sometimes be confusing. While the Gregorian calendar is slowly making inroads, traditional Chinese still count birthdays by the number of lunar New Year festivals the child has experienced. Many combine the two celebrations, so that the family birthdays are celebrated during the New Year festival. If the child happens to be born during the New Year festival, this first celebrated birthday will be observed the following year instead.
The first birthday is also celebrated with a feast; and the traditional gift from the parents to the child is a gold ring. It is also traditional for the child to foretell their future. Various items, such as a pen, book, or coin, are placed around the child or in a basket in front of them. The item the child touches first tells what profession he or she will have. Some feed the child a few long noodles to symbolise the solid foods the child is not yet capable of eating regularly, while others use yu char kuei, a long bread. Because the Queen Mother of the West is said to grow peaches of immortality in her garden, peach-shaped buns with a sweet paste of red bean or lotus at their hearts (sou tao, literally “longevity peach”) make appropriate gifts, as well as charms, red-dyed eggs, toys and clothing decorated with the guardian tiger, and (of course!) the ubiquitous red envelopes of cash.
Thereafter, birthday gift-giving is not so tightly bound by tradition. While hong bao, red-dyed eggs, and (for older people) wine are always appropriate, more contemporary gifts find an occasional niche as well. Many birthday children are given a new set of clothing prior to the special day. Guests should avoid giving gifts such as shoes or intimate wear, however; or any of the many other gifts which are associated with misfortune either through a similarity of sound or by the manner of their use (such as a handkerchief). Never NEVER give a timekeeping device, such as a watch. The words relating to clocks and timekeeping sound very similar to those for seeking death. Many legends tell of those who died the day after having been given such a gift.
No childhood birthday passes without the traditional morning fare of red-dyed eggs, longevity peaches, and sweet “long life” rice noodles rolled or boiled in sugar. The noodles must never be cut short and every effort must be made to eat them without biting them short, since they represent hoped-for longevity. Many families also add different fruits, such as dates or melons. As the child grows older, the actual birthday are celebrated less and less, until, as an adult, the birthday celebration is usually relegated until the New Year. In fact, it becomes increasingly common for the children to celebrate the birthdays of their parents and other elders, rather than the other way around. The exceptions are the birthdays which happen on the same animal year as the child’s birth, every twelve years, when the pendulum of luck swings to its extremes.
Since 1979, when the one-child policy came into effect, the shape of birthdays has begun to change in China. Increasingly the Little Emperor of the family is overindulged, an entire generation of children growing up without hardship, without any conception of a need for moderation – and consequently rapidly changing the consumption habits of an entire country. In fact, a recent survey has found that modern Chinese families living in major urban areas frequently spend more of their disposable income on the child than on themselves. For many young urban Chinese, birthdays throughout life have become just another excuse to indulge themselves.
In a culture where longevity is desirable and the elderly are valuable, the 60th birthday is something special indeed. Not only has the astrological cycle of twelve animals come full circle but so has the astrological cycle of the five elements. Thus, uniquely, the sixtieth year of live is the only year of life where both the animal and element year are exactly the same as the year of birth: and so it marks the key transition between the life of raising children and the beginnings of true wisdom. This and subsequent birthday celebrations for elders, held every ten years, are traditionally given by their now-grown children, in honour of their parents. In general, the older the person, the more extravagant will be the celebration, limited only by the children’s combined wealth.
On the birthday morning, the elder will be given the traditional special birthday breakfast of red eggs and sweet noodles. Later concoctions will include more long noodles, as well as an entire tray of shou tao “peach” buns, often piled over a metre high. It is considered disrespectful not to partake of both foods.
Should you be invited to such a birthday celebration, appropriate gifts are almost without exception valued symbols of longevity, such as old, miniature trees. Jade statuettes or amulets of Sau Sing Kung, the god of longevity, who brings an easy aging for the elderly, good health, and good fortune in life, are especially popular.