Coming of Age — Meaning, Tradition, and Ceremony in Chinese Culture
What Does the Coming of Age Mean?
In ancient China, Coming of Age means someone is qualified to get married, participate in social activities, and take on adult responsibilities, such as paying taxes and serving in the military.
Heirs of thrones also need to finish the transition to obtain real power and to reign a country.
Gold Hairpin or Zan Decorated with Gems of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), for Women to Wear After Coming of Age Ceremony — Qichun Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Definition and Tradition of the Coming of Age Ceremony.
In ancient China, the Coming of Age Ceremony was the ritual that declares one is accepted by the clan and society as an adult and will start taking relevant responsibilities and is qualified to inherit power and titles.
It was started among nobles in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) and later spread to civilians.
The most common age to hold the ceremony was 20 for men and 15 for women in ancient China. But throughout history, between 10 and 20 are all acceptable.
At the ceremony, respected elders would put special caps or Guan on a man's head, tie up the hair of a woman using hair ornaments named Ji or Zan, as well as dress up 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 representative of one’s social status, age, occupation, and educational background.
General Procedure of Coming of Age Ceremony in History
Choosing of Date and Preparation
In old times, the year of holding the ceremony was usually connected to one’s important occasions, such as before marriage, prior to 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.
On Day of Coming of Age Ceremony
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), Guan Li for Men and Ji Li For Women, to tie one’s hair up and help him/her to change the costume to an adult.
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 of, and educating them.
Sometimes they would kowtow to show their loyalty to their country, and the willingness to inherit Chinese culture.
Obtaining of Courtesy Name
Then the coming adult would get a Courtesy Name or honorific name.
Afterward, other people would call one's courtesy name to show respect; only one's elder relatives could call the real name.
The Ending Rites
In the end, he/she would pour some wine on the ground to worship heaven and earth, drink a sip 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)
Coming of Age Ceremony for Men — Guan Li
In Chinese history, Clothing was an important means to show one’s social status, occupation, and age.
Hence, the ceremony also followed strict hierarchy regulations.
Hair and Costume of Child (Prince) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)
The hierarchy could be shown in the steps of the coming of age 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.
Moreover, 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 in governing the country through adequate knowledge and high morals.
Some Examples of Hats and Costumes of Different Ranks of Officials of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)
Fourth, royals, feudal lords, and high-rank officials would put on a costume that empowered them to hold sacrificial ceremonies to worship mountains, rivers, forests, and the earth of certain places.
Fifth, only the emperor, crown prince, or king would put on the 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 ancient history, women didn’t have the same responsibility as men; mostly, their social roles were in regard as being good daughters and sisters, good wives, and good mothers.
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.
Different Hairstyle and Costumes of Married Civilian Women of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)
Rise and Fall of Coming of Age Ceremony in History
The Coming of Age Ceremony, one of the most important rituals in ancient Chinese culture, was set in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) and was firstly popularized among nobles.
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 what it used to be.
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 ceremony or the place and style of the rituals, are mostly depending on themselves.
Some schools would hold a big ceremony for many students together, some parents may find event holders do this for their children.
Despite those diverse styles and details, the essence of the coming of age ceremony has never changed: opening up a new chapter as an adult, and the awareness of one’s responsibilities as a decent human being.
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