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.
Of 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.
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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