Chinese First Birthday Marks Cultural Rite of Passage

A first-birthday coming of age ritual that foretells the future.

ByABC News
July 25, 2008, 5:14 PM

July 22, 2008— -- For most Westerners, coming of age brings to mind quinceneras, sweet sixteens and bar mitzvahs. But in China, it is different.

The coming of age ceremonies here are held before a child has learned to take a single step.

In Beijing, Zhang Yong Qiang let ABC News watch as he and his family prepared for his daughter Yuan Chi's coming-out party, known here as "the first grab." It will be one the most important milestones of her young life.

"There is a saying that the beginning is never easy," explains Zhang about his daughter. "If our little treasure is able to make it to a year old, she has passed one of the hardest hurdles of her life."

For centuries, a Chinese baby's first year was passed with bated breath. China's high infant mortality rate meant that if a baby made it to its first birthday, it was much more likely to survive. Therefore, this milestone is much more important than any other birthday, and the most appropriate time for celebration and the "zhua zhou" or the birthday grab.

Two Birth Dates

By the strictest of standards, Little Yuan Chi's official birthday isn't for another couple of weeks. However, like many traditional Chinese families, Yuan Chi's family decided to celebrate her birthday according to the lunar calendar.

Most Chinese use two calendars. The "yang li" or Western calendar is used officially in everything from newspapers to government ordinances. Holidays in China, such as the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and New Year's, are still celebrated according to the "ying li", or lunar calendar. Since the lunar calendar doesn't always match up to the solar calendar days, Chinese people can choose which birthday to celebrate.

Long Noodles, Long Life

The coming of age birthday calls for a celebration feast, and the Zhang family doesn't hesitate to load the table with delicious fare. But before the family can chow down, the baby must be fed.

Today, little Yuan Chi is getting egg porridge, fed to her by her mother and grandmother. She ate the entire egg, yet another auspicious sign.

For the adults in the room, the bright, colorful menu includes everything from stir-fried carrots and tomatoes to crayfish and chicken cartilage. Yet, after these are finished, the most important dish for the feast makes an appearance. Piping hot bowls of noodle soup, decorated with egg slices, are brought out from the kitchen. These noodles aren't just any noodles: "chang shou mian," as these noodles are called, represent long life.