Change for the better or a sad loss? – Birthday traditions in China

Change for the better or a sad loss? – Birthday traditions in China

When we are younger a birthday is always something we can’t wait for. Presents, all our friends gathered and food our mother would usually not let us eat on a daily basis. Than we get older. And birthdays start to seem less important (or better be ignored).

Birthdays in China are usually not much different from those we celebrate here in Western countries. I have been to great birthday parties in Shanghai, but what is really interesting are those birthday traditions in rural China.

Today Jin went to the 12-year-old birthday of his best friend’s son. For children in China there are all kinds of customs surrounding birthdays. Starting with the first celebration after one month 满月 when the baby was born. Then there is Baby’s 100 Days celebration, also as important as a birthday in itself. And finally the “One-Year-Old” Birthday.

All those celebrations come with a big feast and lots of red envelopes. As far as I know they are pretty common throughout China. But there are a few traditions which have changed or even got lost in time, or just have never been that wide-spread.

The 12-year-old birthday of a boy is very special (and it really is reserved for boys only, as usual). I did some research and found out that it is actually more common for rural areas in Shanxi province to celebrate this big event. Apparently, the people of Niuji village in Anhui province don’t care, they celebrate it as well.

The tradition of “Opening of the Longevity lock” 开锁子

So what happens when you turn twelve in Niuji? Before you can open a lock, there has to be a lock, and it should be locked.

Let’s start from the beginning. When a baby boy turns one month old usually the maternal grandmother gives him a longevity lock. In Niuji those have been hand-made before. Jin told me his grandmother made him one out of knitted red silk threads. Every year one silk thread will be added together with a cupper coin (unfortunately I don’t have a picture) until he is 12 years old. On the day of his twelfth birthday they open the lock one by one. It is a very important event for the boy. With opening the lock the parents try to open the boy’s wisdom and bring him out of his infancy period into a more adult life. Some families spend even more money on that birthday than a wedding. I went to this huge banquet a family arranged when their only-son turned 12. They had seven children, and six of them were girls. So when the seventh finally was a boy, of course every single event in his life has to be celebrated in a great manner (actually I can’t wait to go to his wedding one day).

Nowadays things have changed remarkably.

But there are still some traces of the old tradition left. For example, the boy turning 12 has to be surrounded by a boy his same age, and twelve adults (no matter women or men) who have a different surname than his own. Also the surname Wang 王 has to be avoided as it sounds like Wang 亡 “death”. Jin, with his surname Zhan, was on the safe site and could be one of the twelve people accompanying the boy into adolescence (if you can even call a 12-year-old boy an adult). So you have a birthday kid, and another boy the same age who is supposed to help the boy. Back in the days they would also be twelve of those baked sesame seed-coated cakes shaobing 烧饼, and the two boys would have to take one bite of every single one, and in-between do one kow-tow. Nowadays, there are rarely baked cakes. They replaced it with a big-ass birthday cake. There are still kow-tow though. The boys have to do three kow-tows to Zaoshen 灶神, the god of the kitchen (Zaowangnainai or  灶王奶奶 Zaowangye 灶王爷). It’s her (or him) who has protected the boy since the family gave him the lock when he was a month old.

Lost traditions

Chinese birthdayOf course, modern times, modern customs. And traditions seem old and backward. Most customs surrounding the 12-year-old birthday have been replaced. There is still a huge feast, but due to the better living standards people think the best way to show how well they live, is to have meat. Lots of meat.

The delicious baked sesame seed-coated cakes have been replaced by a six storey cake. The new clothes the family members would give the boy and his companion have been replaced by red envelopes, sometimes with sums up to 2000RMB depending on the relationship. The traditional cloth-lock has changed into a metal one, or has even disappeared altogether. The birthday Jin went to today did not include any opening of the lock. It was just called a -lock-opening-birthday. But no lock to be found.

No. This is not a wedding cake. They don't have wedding cakes in Niuji. This is a birthday cake you get when you turn 12. If you are a boy, of course.

No. This is not a wedding cake. They don’t have wedding cakes in Niuji. This is a birthday cake you get when you turn 12. If you are a boy, of course.

And the worst thing of all is, if you ask some of the younger people why the 12-year-old birthday is so important none of them can answer me! I was shocked by the ignorance of some people. The lack of interest towards their own traditions. Most people go to the birthday party because there is free food (which you can even take home if you are quick).

Sadly, this is not a particular Chinese problem. All around the world old traditions disappear. People trying to be modern. In my opinion that is a really upsetting development. If we don’t be careful, in a matter of time the whole world will have transformed in a big mash of uniformity. No single extraordinary traditions left. Diversity gone forever…

What do you think? Should we protect what is left of old traditions? Or should we go with the time and leave behind what keeps us from being a modern nation?

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

13 thoughts on “Change for the better or a sad loss? – Birthday traditions in China

  1. Really interesting tradition! I just asked my fiancee if they celebrate like that in his hometown (满洲里), with the lock and if it’s a big celebration when your 12, and he has never heard about it.. Must be so fun to experience something like this! A little special and very different from the western world, but seems fun :)

    • Yes, China is so big. Traditions differ from place to place. Once we went to a wedding, just 20min away in the next village. And they did some weird things. I asked my hubby what it means, and he said he had never seen it before haha So many times I read about interesting traditions and customs all around China, and not even half of them are known to him lol Sometimes it seems foreigners know more about China’s old traditions then the Chinese themselves.

      • Haha that’s funny. Ugh, i just realized i added one extra “e” in my comment.. But i guess you understood what i meant.. Since my fiance is from North East of China, they actually have some “new” traditions that they have gotten from Russia. They are quite.. interesting hehe

        • Really? You should write about them! I would love to know how they adopted those Russian traditions. My grandparents are from Russia and live at the border to China. They tell me many Russian actually adapted to some Chinese customs. My uncle crosses the border every weekend to have a Chinese-style dinner with his friends :)

          • Wow, I heard of Manzhouli. It’s in the Inner Mongolia right? It’s like next to the Russian city Zabaykalsk. The city my uncle sometimes goes is Suifenhe. He lives in Vladivostok now, so it takes longer to get to China. But still very close and very good connection haha

          • Yeah it’s in Inner Mongolia :) Veeery different from everywhere else in China, atleast the places I’ve been to.. Suifenhe, I’ve heard of it, but don’t know much about it hehe. Have you ever been there?

          • No I have never been there. Actually I have never been in the north or south of China. Really still have to see sooooo much! But everytime you live somewhere, somehow there is no time to go sightseeing, unless a friend visits haha

  2. Very interesting! I have never heard of the lock tradition.
    However, I think the big celebration when you turn 12 may be related to the Chinese horoscope: if for example you are born on the year of the monkey, when you are 12 it will be the year of the monkey again. I remember some teacher telling us that the birthdays multiple of 12 are always very important in China: 12, 24, 36, 48, 60…. They are called “benmingnian” and you are supposed to be lucky in them, but just if you wear something red at all times!

    • Yes, I have heard that it has to do with the Chinese horoscope. Though some people told me that actually your own year is not that lucky at all. For example, now the horse year is about to begin, and my hubby is a horse (horoscope wise haha), and he is a bit superstitious lol He said it is a very unlucky year for all horses. They should better stock up on talismans and red clothes.

  3. Yes traditions have been going out the window. I wish I had learned more about my culture when I was growing up in Puerto Rico. A lot of people don’t think about passing on traditions because it’s just something they’ve always done and assume it’ll continue.

    Love the story of the lock.

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