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生日快乐 (sheng ri kuai le)! How to Celebrate a Chinese Birthday

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We’ve put together a cultural lesson about celebrating Chinese birthdays. Although some of these traditions are beginning to change in modern China, it’s good to understand the reasons for these cultural superstitions and differences. Some of these traditions may be different around China, and if you’ve come across any that are different or interesting please leave a comment below!

Happy Birthday to you!

One of the most important things you need to know is how to say Happy Birthday to your Chinese friends!

生日快乐!(shēng rì kuài lè) Happy Birthday!

Lyrics to Happy Birthday

The Chinese version of ‘Happy Birthday’ is sang along to the same tune that is used in the west. Why not give it a go?

祝你生日快乐
(zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè)
Happy Birthday to You
祝你生日快乐
(zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè)
Happy Birthday to You
祝你幸福, 祝你健康
(zhù nǐ xìng fú, zhù nǐ jiàn kāng)
Here’s to your happiness, Here’s to your good health
祝你前途光明
(zhù nǐ qián tú guāng míng)
May your future be bright
祝你生日快乐
(zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè)
Happy Birthday to You
祝你生日快乐
(zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè)
Happy Birthday to You
祝你幸福, 祝你健康
(zhù nǐ xìng fú, zhù nǐ jiàn kāng)
Here’s to your happiness, Here’s to your good health
有个温暖家庭
(yǒu gè wēn nuǎn jiā tíng)
Here’s to your family.

Baby’s 1st Birthday

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The 1st birthday of a child is an incredibly important Chinese tradition. Some parents tell the baby’s fortune, by placing the baby in the middle of some objects and observing which the baby picks up. This tradition is known as 抓周 (zhuā zhōu). 周 (zhōu) refers to the child reaching a year old. I’ve found many different translations of 抓周 (zhuā zhōu) including ‘One year old catch’ and ‘draw lots’. If the baby picks up a coin, then he or she might be rich when they’re older. Or if the baby picks up a doll, perhaps they will have many children. If they pick up a government seal, then maybe they will work for the government. However, if a baby chooses food or toys then it is possible that the child will be ‘playful’ in the future and is considered a bad omen. Thankfully, many parents tend to read this in a positive light!

Actually though, when a baby is born in China, he or she is already one year old so this tradition is technically on a baby’s ‘2nd’ birthday.

How Old Are You?

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If you want to work out someone’s age you ask for their Chinese zodiac:

Although in Chinese the zodiacs are called 生肖 (shēng xiào), if you want to ask someone’s zodiac you would ask like this:

你属什么? (nǐ shǔ shén me?) – What year (of the zodiac) are you?

You can read more about each of the 12 Chinese zodiac here.

Chinese Birthday…noodles?

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Until very recently, birthday cake was not really part of a Chinese birthday. However these days, especially at a child’s party, there will be a cake (although a lot different to what we’re used to!). Previous to this, it was tradition to begin eating ‘Longevity noodles’ known as 寿面 (shòu miàn). The longevity noodle is meant to be sucked up for as long as possible before needing to be bitten (to fit into the person’s mouth). The long noodles represent the person’s long life, although I’m fairly sure there is no competitive element to this!

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Often, if you celebrate a birthday in a Chinese restaurant, the owner will offer the person celebrating a free bowl of noodles with egg as a gift!

Chinese Birthday Gifts

Gifts 礼物 (lǐ wù) are also a relatively new addition to the Chinese birthday. Red packets 红包 (hóng bāo) may have been given instead of a gift, but were mainly reserved for Chinese New Year. There some important things to know about giving gifts to Chinese people.

Since Chinese culture is packed with superstitions, it’s also good to know what NOT to buy as a gift (not just for a birthday gift).

  • Gifts that come in pairs are best (but not 4’s!)
  • Gifts should be wrapped in red (ideally), but definitely not colours that represent death, such as white or black.
  • If you receive a gift from a Chinese person, it is rude to open it in front of them, so either ask them if it’s ok, or wait until later! (Chamcen tells me that these days it’s ok between friends.)
  • Clocks: Since clocks represent time, giving a clock as a gift might suggest that the receiver’s time is ‘running out’. The Chinese words meaning to ‘give a clock’ 送鐘 (sòng zhōng) sounds like 送終 (sòng zhōng) which means to pay one’s last respects.
  • Towels: Towels are often given out at funerals, so these are best avoided to prevent sad memories.
  • Cut flowers: Especially yellow or white chrysanthemums 菊花 (jú huā) as they are usually given at funerals.
  • Shoes: 送鞋子 (sòng xié zi – give shoes) sounds very similar to the words used to break up with someone ( xié – abnormal, evil). So don’t give shoes to your significant other if you want to stay with them!
  • A green hat: Yes, what are the chances of buying your friend or partner a green hat? Pretty slim. But green hats should still be avoided at all costs because it’s the same phrase used to suggest your wife is cheating on you 戴绿帽子 (dài lǜ mào zi)!
  • Chinese Birthday Superstitions

    As opposed to in the West, where people stop celebrating birthdays because they’re embarrassed. Chinese people don’t celebrate certain birthdays because of, yup, you guessed it, superstitions 迷信 (mí xìn).

    30

    The big 30: Since 30 is said to be potentially dangerous, many Chinese women do not celebrate their 30th birthday and remain 29 for an extra year (I can see an increase of 29 year olds amongst my friends already)

    33: 33 is even more unlucky than 30, and women about to turn this dreaded double 3 age should buy some meat, hide it behind the kitchen door and chop the meat 33 times. Apparently, chopping the meat will get rid of any evil spirits lurking in the woman’s home and enter the meat. Afterwards the meat is thrown away along with any trouble.

    66: 66 has the same danger as 33, but this time a close female family relative must do the chopping. 66 chops to get rid of those demons.

    40

    40: Not so differently from in the West, Chinese men consider 40 to be a year of danger and potential bad luck (not to mention a mid-life crisis) and choose to remain 39 for an extra year!

    It is common amongst older generations now to celebrate other birthdays too including 73 and 84. In Chamcen’s hometown, 江西 (jiāng xī) 赣州 (gàn zhōu) men will celebrate their 60th birthday, whilst women will celebrate 59th, but not 60th!

    Chinese Birthday Greetings

    Depending on someone’s age and relationship with each other, people will write or speak a different kind of greeting. Chamcen has given us a handful of different things to say to a Chinese person on their special day!

    For older people, like grandparents, people will often write long greetings, but a more simple sentiment might be:

    祝您福如东海,寿比南上。
    (zhù nín fú rú dōng hǎi, shòu bì nán shàng)
    May your fortune be as boundless as the East Sea and may you live a long and happy life!

    or an older person who especially like to hear the following:

    祝您年年有今日,岁岁有今朝(年年有今日=岁岁有今朝)
    (zhù nín nián nián yǒu jīn rì, suì suì yǒu jīn zhāo (nián nián yǒu jīn rì = suì suì yǒu jīn zhāo))
    You have this day (can celebrate your birthday) every year in the future.

    For family members such as your parents, for example, you can say:

    祝您身体健康,越活越年轻
    (zhù nín shēn tǐ jiàn kāng, yuè huó yuè nián qīng.)
    Happy birthday! May you be healthy and continue to get younger and younger.

    For children we can say:
    希望你健康快乐地长大!
    (xī wàng nǐ jiàn kāng kuài lè de zhǎng dà)
    I wish you grow up to be healthy and happy!

    For friends, just simply say:
    祝你生日快乐,天天快乐,心想事成。
    (zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè, tiān tiān kuài lè, xīn xiǎng shì chéng)
    Happy birthday to you! I hope that you are happy every day and that all your wishes come true.

    If you know of any other Chinese birthday traditions you know of, please share them with us below!

     
    If you’re interested in learning Chinese, you can check out our Written Chinese Dictionary! You can learn more about our Chinese Learning Toolkit here! You can also click on the links below to download it for your iOS and Android devices!
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    Click Here to Download 生日快乐! Celebrating Birthdays in China PDF

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