Chinese First Birthday Marks Cultural Rite of Passage

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


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.

"In Northern China, where we are from, noodles must be eaten on every birthday. At the very least, the birthday child must have a bowl," Yuan Chi's father explains.

The decorative egg topping also contains a deeper meaning. Eggs represent roundness, which symbolizes the wish that the child have a wholesome and full life.

Long life noodles aren't just eaten in any fashion, either. In order to ensure the long life of the birthday girl, these noodles must be slurped whole. One accidental bite of noodle might metaphorically cut short Yuan Chi's life.

Tradition of the Dynasties

After feasting and much noodle-slurping, the birthday grab begins. The tradition of the birthday grab comes from dynastic times.

On the first birthday, a set of items are placed before the birthday child so that the child may pick whatever he or she fancies. Whatever item the child picks and successfully gives to his or her parents may be an indication of the child's future career.

Some of the symbolic items are easy to understand: a stethoscope for a medical career, a calculator for a career in the sciences. However, other items require knowledge of the Chinese language and culture to comprehend. For example, stamps are used in China to authenticate documents, and if a child picks up the stamp, they will most likely become a high-ranking official or a person of great power.

If the child picks a stalk of celery, the child will be hard-working, or "qin lao." Similarly, an orange stands for fortune, and green onions represent intelligence.

"We wish her to choose whatever she naturally wants to do," mused Yuan Chi's mother, Niu Kuan. "Her grandfather wants her to be a doctor, though, so we will see what happens."

Yuan Chi's uncle, Zhao Cheng Hui, places the objects carefully on the ground, making sure that no item is unfairly attractive to the young child. After many adjustments, the baby is finally allowed to peruse the objects which may determine her future.

She touches the stethoscope, and her hand skims over the celery. The brightly colored orange attracts her attention, but she soon loses interest in it as well. Finally, her little hand grabs the highlighter, which she examines thoroughly. Satisfied with the weight and shape of the object, she crawls back to her mother's arms, pen in hand. Everyone in the room lets out a sign of relief, and begins to clap for Yuan Chi's choice.

"The pen means that she will have a career in the literary arts! She will be a girl of talent!" exclaims Mr. Zhang. This choice means that little Yuan Chi may become a writer, a scholar, or even a journalist.

As the most critical part of the celebration is over, Yuan Chi's uncle brings out her birthday cake, a Western practice that has taken firm root in China.

Amid the sounds of a Chinese-language version of "Happy Birthday," the little birthday girl passes another hurdle in her life's journey.