Chinese Birth Celebration Traditions: Customs, Rites, and Cultural Meaning
Birth celebrations in China include a series of customs and rites, spanning from pregnancy to the newborn's one-year-old birthday.
Officially established during the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) and spreading from nobility to civilians, people conducted rites for a newborn on the day of birth, three days after birth, one month, a hundred days, and the one-year-old birthday.
While some details have been simplified or adjusted throughout history, the core ceremonies have been well-preserved.
Today, celebrating the full month and a hundred days, in addition to birthdays, remains common in China.
Preparations and Birth Celebration
In some places, after a new couple found out their pregnant news, the father would write two names, one boy and one girl, and the mother would put it into a red envelope and seal it. (Read more about Chinese Names)
After the baby was born, the father would hang a bow on the left side of the door if it was a boy and hang a scarf or fabric belt on the right side if it was a girl.
Then, the parents would open the prepared red envelope together and tell the baby their name; some people could also name the baby on this day.
Afterward, the husband would bring some gifts (varies in different places and dynasties of China), first to his in-laws and then to his parents, to share the good news.
Three Days Celebration or San Zhao Li
The rite on the 3rd day of the baby's birth is named San Zhao or Xi San, the day to bathe the newborn and pray for a healthy life and future.
In this ceremony, the newborn's parents and close relatives would put different herbs and money, representing health and wealth, into the bathwater and talk auspicious words when bathing the baby.
Newborn's parents' close friends would bring gifts to participate, and some well-educated ones would also write beautiful poems.
The baby's mother's parents would also send presents with auspicious meanings at this ceremony, such as clothes, jewelry, peanuts, and cakes.
If the newborn is a boy, he will be brought out, and watching his father use a ritual bow and shoot arrows to heaven, earth, and four directions, represents the baby boy would grow into an ambitious man who pursues his great dreams all over the big world.
Full Month Celebration or Man Yue Li
Full Month Celebration, or Man Yue, is an essential rite of birth celebration in China today, with different details and procedures.
One month after the baby’s birth, the parents would light incense and inform their ancestors about the newborn, which is not widely followed nowadays.
In some places, newborns would have their hair shaved for the first time.
However, Introducing the baby to everyone has always been the most important part.
Usually, the mother would take the baby out to meet all the guests, while the father would put a jade pendant on them and tell everyone about the baby’s name and meaning.
Together, the parents would show their baby the heaven, earth, four directions, relatives, and close friends.
After all the ceremonies, there always would be a Full-Month-Banquet, when guests would give gifts to the newborn.
A Hundred Days Celebration or Bai Ri Li
The 100-day celebration is to put on patchwork clothes and longevity locks for the baby on the 100th day of their birth.
Patchwork Clothes or Bai Jia Yi is to get fabric scraps from 100 other families and sew them into clothes for the newborn.
It represents the best wishes and luck of 100 other families.
Chinese Patchwork Clothes or Bai Jia Yi of Early 20th Century — Minority Garments and Decorations Museum of Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology
Longevity Lock or Chang Ming Suo, made of silver, gold, or jade, is usually given by the baby's grandparents or godparents.
A longevity lock means to lock all good luck for the newborn, usually carving auspicious words on one side and lucky patterns on the other.
Gilding Silver Longevity Lock of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
First Birthday and Zhuazhou the Draw Lots
On the baby's first birthday, Draw Lots or One-Year-Old Catch, in Chinese named Zhuazhou, is a significant activity.
Formed no later than Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 — 589), the Draw Lots ceremony has been believed can show the baby's future, personality, and hobby.
On the newborn's one-year-old birthday, after showering and putting new clothes on the baby, the parents would put them in the Draw Lots place, a spacious room with Draw Lots objects set in a circle.
Generally, those objects should have similar sizes and should be things that the baby had never played with or seen before to ensure it's fair.
Then, the baby will be put in the middle to see which one they would grab.
Typical Draw Lots objects include books, pens, seals, money, food, rulers, swords, fabric, instruments, painting brushes, toys, and sports goods; some also add modern things like a keyboard.
After this ceremony, a banquet is usually held to celebrate the baby's first birthday, when some people let the baby taste a little bit of grownup food, representing the taste of life.
Till then, the whole welcome process of a newborn is officially completed.
What to Give for Newborn's Birth Celebrations
Today, except for very close friends and relatives, people usually won't be invited to all celebration rites of a newborn. Generally, a parent would hold a big celebration banquet on the Full Month, 100 Days, or One-Year-Old Birthday.
Money in a red envelope is the most common gift for birth celebrations, which the parents can use to buy whatever they want.
The amount of numbers depends on one's closeness to the baby's parents, usually auspicious integer numbers.
Decent gifts like toys and jewelry are also good ideas, but it is always important to know those are things the parents want.
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