For example, I recently experienced a totally Chinese baby’s first birthday party. It was unlike any western birthday party I had ever been to. The most interesting part was the 抓周 (zhuā zhōu) ritual, where multiple objects are placed in front of the baby. The chosen object is meant to predict the baby’s future career in a light-hearted way.
This got me thinking. There are probably many other off-the-radar Chinese traditions and rituals that are fun to try out for any lovers of Chinese culture. Here are four such traditions that I think anyone should try!
1. 抓周(zhuā zhōu) - Baby’s First Birthday
In Chinese culture, the baby's first birthday is a huge celebration, and 抓周 (zhuā zhōu) is a traditional activity that cannot be missed.
Essentially, a number of items are placed in front of the baby, and the baby is left to freely grab whichever item he or she wants. The chosen item supposedly predicts the child's future career. A number of traditional items include pen and paper for a career as a writer or journalist, money and abacus for a career in business, paint brushes for an artist, and any small instrument such as a flute for a budding musician. In recent years, more modern items such as a computer mouse, or cameras might be added to symbolize modern careers such as software engineers or photographers.
Other parents might use items that make a play in homonyms, two words that sound the same but have different meanings. These items might include 葱 (cōng) - scallions, since it sounds like 聪 (cōng) - smart or 蒜 (suàn) - garlic, since it sounds like 算 (suàn) - calculations, meaning that the child will be good with numbers.
Whichever way it’s done, the 抓周 (zhuā zhōu) ritual is a playful way for parents and friends to show their happiest wishes for the baby’s bright future. If you or a friend is a new parent, this would be a fantastic activity for a toddler’s birthday party!
2. 长寿面 (cháng shòu miàn) - Eating longevity noodles on your birthday
The tradition of 长寿面 (cháng shòu miàn) - longevity noodles - actually dates back to the Tang dynasty. Back in ancient times, noodles were considered a special treat, and it made sense that noodles became a food for special occasions such as birthdays.
Everyone does longevity noodles a little differently, but some elements remain the same. The length of the noodles symbolize a long life, and you are never supposed to cut the noodles, as it is the symbolic equivalent to cutting one’s life short. Some places even make a bowl of noodles with a single, extra-long strand of noodle to further the idea of longevity. The egg is a symbol of youth and new life, and is typically served poached in the broth along with the noodles.
In college, my friends and I would forget about longevity noodles, and then scramble to make ramen noodles at night in a last-ditch effort to observe the tradition!
Whether you decide to cook at home or visit a ramen shop, you should try eating longevity noodles on your birthday. Any type of noodles will do, it’s really the thought that counts.
*TIP: Unit 47 in our Intermediate Conversational Course is all about "Celebrating Birthdays". Check out these lessons to learn a TON of useful vocabulary, expressions, grammar and cultural insights about birthdays:
3. 踏青 (tà qīng) - Going hiking in the spring
踏青 (tà qīng) literally means “to step on the greens,” but actually is the name of a Chinese tradition that dates back to the Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history around 771 to 476 BC.
If you are going 踏青 (tà qīng), you are gathering up a group of people to go hiking in the outdoors at the beginning of spring. Generally, people go 踏青 (tà qīng) around the Qing Ming holiday, which in 2019 falls on April 5th. After a long winter, going hiking is a great way to clear the mind and enjoy some fresh air in the company of family and friends.
(Never heard of the Qing Ming Holiday? Check out this blog post "5 Official Chinese Holidays You May Have Never Heard Of" to learn more!)
Aside from hiking and basking in the green scenery, other traditional 踏青 (tà qīng) activities include going on a picnic, flying a kite, or playing on the swing. The next time you are looking for a reason to get a group together for an outdoor adventure, tell them about the ancient Chinese tradition of 踏青 (tà qīng)!
4. Making Lanterns for 元宵节 (yuán xiāo jié) - Lantern Festival
Growing up in China, 元宵节 (yuán xiāo jié) - the Lantern Festival - was always one of the holidays I looked forward to the most. My grandpa was a skilled crafstman, and always created lanterns that made me the envy of all the kids on my block.
For a fun and easy craft project, you can try making a simple eggshell lantern. I was able to make these even as a child!
To start, hollow out an egg and rinse out the inside of the egg shell. Peel away the egg shell at the top until you can fit a small candle inside, dripping a few drops of wax on the bottom so the candle can stand on its own. Then unravel a paper clip and puncture the egg shell on each side, and bend in the middle of the paper clip so you can hook it onto a stick for a handle (a chopstick should work!). Once you light the candle, voila! An eggshell lantern!
For a slightly more complicated but highly rewarding project, you can make a 孔明灯 (kǒng míng dēng), a traditional lantern that rises into the air. Legend has it that the brilliant strategist 诸葛亮 (zhū gé liàng) invented these during the Warring States period as a way to send messages to his troops. Since then, these lanterns have taken on a more light-hearted meaning, and changed into a way to send your wishes and blessings into the sky in the hopes that they come true.
Here are the step-by-step instructions if you would like to try making a Chinese flying lantern!
I hope that you’ve enjoyed learning about these off the beaten path Chinese traditions. Perhaps you will try one of these out in the future!