Coming of Age Ceremony in Chinese Culture

Meaning and Development of the Coming of Age Ceremony

The Coming of Age Ceremony, one of the most important ceremonies in ancient Chinese culture, was set in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC). 

 

When the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) ruled China, this ceremony was forced to end. Nowadays, this ceremony has been recovered but is different in some specifics from it used to be. 

Started from nobles and then widely applied by civilians, it was a ceremony that declares one has become an adult that was ready to get married, to take relevant responsibilities, and inherit power and titles.

Brief Introduction to the Coming of Age Ceremony 

The most common age to hold the ceremony was 20 for men and 15 for women in ancient China. But throughout history, between 12 and 20 are all acceptable. 

People would get their courtesy names in the rite. The Courtesy Name, also literary name or honorific name, was the one that one’s peers would use to call and show respect; only the elders could call other’s real names in ancient Chinese history. 

On the Coming of Age Ceremony, respected elders would put special hats on a man's head, or tie up the hair of a woman using hair ornaments named Ji/Zan, and dressing with relevant robes or accessories. Afterward, one would keep the new look, as a grown-up.

In ancient Chinese culture, Hat (Guan) and Clothes (Fu) as a whole set had been the representative of one’s social status, age, occupation, and educational background. 

Whole Sets of Costume (Guan and Fu) of High Rank Official and His Wife of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

General Procedure of Coming of Age Ceremony in History

 

Choosing of Date and Preparation 

In old times, the year of holding a coming of age ceremony was usually connected to one’s important occasions, such as before marriage, or prior of inheriting a title or the throne, or just common regulation of 20 for men and 15 for women. 

The date, however, was usually set after careful divination. The holding place and the host usually would be the most honorable ones that a family could get. 

At the ceremony, after all the guests have sat in the right position, the parents would give a short speech. 

Then the person who was about to be an adult, would bow and show gratitude to all the guests for attending.

A respected elder that was chosen to hold this ceremony, would wash hands, then in several steps (differed throughout history and hierarchy) to tie one’s hair up and to help him/her to change the costume to an adult. 

Coming of Age Ceremony for Men — Guan Li

In Chinese history, the costume was an important means to show one’s social status, occupation, and age. Hence, the coming of age ceremony also followed strict hierarchy regulations. 

Hair and Costume of Child (Prince) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

This could be shown in the steps of the ceremony for men:

  • First, put on a fabric made hat that covers one’s hair, meaning he acquired the basic skills to take care of a family, or manage people. 

Different Types of Civilians' Fabric Hats (Guan) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

  • Second, put on a leather-made hat (Pi Bian Guan), centuries later changed to other types of hats that were symbols of power and military, which represented that a civilian was able to serve in the army, or a king was able to take in charge of military power.

 

Therefore, nobles would also wear a sword in this step.

Emperor's Hat and Costume (Pi Bian) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

  • Third, put on a more exquisite hat (such as silk made), which implied he was empowered to participate in grand worship ceremonies, and to assist governing the country through knowledge and moral. 

Some Examples of Hats and Costumes of Different Ranks of Officials of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

  • Fourth, for royals, feudal lords, and high-rank officials, they would put on a costume that empowered them to hold sacrificial ceremonies to worship mountains, rivers, forests, and earth of certain places. 

  • Fifth, only the emperor, crown prince, or king would put on costume named Gun Mian, a whole set that sovereigns wore on the most important occasions, like enthronement, worship of heaven and ancestors, etc.

Emperor's Most Honorable Ritual Robes (Gun Fu on the Left, Mian Fu on the Right) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), Worn in Grand Events Like Worshiping of Heaven or Ancestors — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

Coming of Age Ceremony for Women — Ji Li

In Chinese history, women didn’t have the same responsibility as men; mostly, their social roles were in regard to a good daughter and sister, a good wife, and a good mother. 

Therefore, the coming of age ceremony in general also contained three steps that presented a woman’s grow-up process. 

Hairstyle and Costumes of Stages of A Princess' Life (Kid, Grownup, Married Lady, Mother) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

Women’s hairstyles followed the same rules based on their ages and marital status, however, decoration, patterns, and colors of their hair and costumes still followed the strict hierarchy in history. 

Different Hairstyle and Costumes of Married Civilian Women of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

Ending of the Coming of Age Ceremony

After each step, the coming adult would kowtow to parents, respectable elders and teachers, as a means to show gratitude for giving birth to, raising up, taking care, and educating them. 

Sometimes they would kowtow to show their loyalty to their country, and the willingness to inherit Chinese culture.

Then the coming adult would get a courtesy name or honorific name (in the history of China, the real name could only be called by the elders and themselves; other people would use the literary name to show respect). 

Later he/she would pour some wine on the ground to worship the heaven and earth, drink a sip of wine, and eat one bite of rice, symbolizing the beginning to experience everything in life, both ups and downs.  

Then, he/she would kneel on the ground, and listen to his/her parents' teaching or expectation.  

After showing gratitude for guests again, he/she could finally stand next to his/her parents as a real adult. 

Common Hairstyle and Costumes of A Civilian Couple of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

The Coming of Age Ceremony in China Today  

 

Nowadays, both boys and girls are considered adults when they are 18 in China. 

Like other modern countries without a feudal hierarchy system, men and women in China go to school and work equally. 

When people have more choices, whether they want to hold a coming of age ceremony or the place and style of the ceremony, are mostly depending on themselves. 

Some schools would hold a big coming of age ceremony for many students together, some parents may find event holders do this for their children. 

Meanwhile, participants can wear traditional Chinese Han Clothes, or school uniforms, or costume of one's favorite dynasty in Chinese History. 

Despite those diverse styles and details, the essence of the coming of age ceremony has never changed: opening up of a new chapter as an adult, and the awareness of one’s responsibilities as a decent human being. 

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