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Chinese Birthday Traditions, Taboos, and Vocabulary
Daniel Nalesnik
   •   January 21, 2022

While people around the world celebrate their birthdays every year, we all seem to do so a bit differently—each culture has its own birthday superstitions and traditions. If you’re planning on celebrating a Chinese birthday, there are actually some Chinese birthday traditions and taboos that you should be aware of before you dig into your slice of birthday cake.

In this post, we dive into some of the traditions and taboos that make Chinese birthdays special. We’ve also put together a list of relevant vocabulary for you to prepare your Mandarin skills for celebrating turning one year older.

Chinese Birthday Traditions

1. Age Calculations are Different in Chinese Culture

In Western cultures, children start at age zero when they’re born and turn one the following year. Birthdays in China work a bit differently. Traditionally, children start at the age of one when they’re born. According to Chinese first birthday traditions, when Chinese New Year comes around, these children turn two, and they continue to age one year every Chinese New Year.

This means that when Chinese children celebrate their first birthday party, they’re actually turning two! 

However, this counting method is rather a tradition than a rule as in the official documents the age of a Chinese person is indicated the same way as it is in the rest of the world. To differentiate between the two numbers, Chinese people say 周岁, which stands for “one full year of life” and 虚岁 which means the person’s nominal age. 

Interesting fact: If you’re curious about someone’s age but don’t want to seem impolite, you can ask them for their Chinese zodiac sign. Since the Chinese zodiac goes through a twelve-year cycle of animals, knowing someone’s sign is an easy way of calculating their age.

2. Chinese Birthday Food

According to Chinese birthday celebration traditions, there are two kinds of food that are important to serve on Chinese birthdays: long noodles and red eggs.

Long noodles—or “longevity noodles”—symbolize living a long life. Noodles are left unbroken in bowls, and you should try to eat them as one continuous strand!

As for the red eggs, peeling their shells evokes getting a fresh start.

Interesting fact: Loved ones and family members who can’t make it in person to birthday parties will often eat long noodles themselves. This lets them independently observe the tradition of enjoying Chinese birthday food to wish the celebrating person a long life.

3. Chinese Gift-giving Etiquette

Who doesn’t love birthday presents? Just as it is in the West, gift giving is a part of Chinese birthday traditions. If you’re preparing a gift for a Chinese birthday celebration, make sure you follow these rules:

  • First, make sure you choose a gift that the recipient will appreciate. Look for items that they will find useful—beverages and snacks like wine, tea, and fruit baskets are popular options.
  • Presentation counts! Wrap your gift well, and be aware that differently colored wrappers carry different symbolic meanings. For example, wrapping a present in red paper and a gold ribbon can be a gesture of good luck.
  • When it comes time to offer your gift, be aware that the recipient may at first refuse your gift out of a sense of etiquette. This is completely normal in Chinese gift-giving culture. If you find yourself in this situation like the one offering a gift, you should respond by politely insisting upon giving them your present!

Interesting fact: If you give a gift, don’t expect to see the other person immediately unwrap it in front of you. Doing so would imply that they care more about the gift than about you.

Chinese Birthday Taboos

1. Belated Birthday Celebrations

Is it bad luck to celebrate your birthday early? According to Chinese birthday traditions, the opposite is true. When planning a birthday celebration, you should actually aim for a date that falls on or before the actual date of birth. Belated birthday celebrations are taboo.

The reasoning goes that If you celebrate a belated birthday party, it’ll feel like you’ve had two birthdays, making you feel two years older instead of just one.

Interesting fact: In other cultures - including Russian culture - planning birthday celebrations before the actual birth date is bad luck!

2. Forbidden Birthdays for Women and Men

For women, the following birthdays actually go uncelebrated according to Chinese birthday traditions:

  • 30: The age of 30 is considered a risky and dangerous year for women, so rather than turning 30, they remain 29 for another year.
  • 33: A woman’s 33rd birthday is particularly ominous. To neutralize bad luck, Chinese women will buy some meat, go behind a kitchen door, and hack the meat 33 times. This allows the women to cast evil spirits into the meat and then throw it away.
  • 66: At the age of 66, Chinese women rely on their daughters or relatives to repeat the same 33rd-birthday ritual. This time, the meat is chopped 66 times.

For men, on the other hand, 40 is a year of bad luck, so they forgo a 40th birthday celebration and stay 39 for another year. Some men will actually wait until the age of 60 to really celebrate their birthdays.

3. Taboo Gift Choices

Back to birthday presents. In Chinese culture, there are also taboos in place regarding what gifts you should give others. Try to avoid these items as birthday presents:

  • Watches and clocks: As timekeeping pieces, these can remind people of their mortality. Avoid giving these to older people in particular.
  • Candles: Since candles are closely associated with funeral and mourning rituals, these are also reminders of death.
  • Chrysanthemums: Like candles, chrysanthemums are a reminder of death because of their ritual uses. Other flower arrangements still make for good gifts.
  • Necklaces, ties, and belts: These clothing accessories are seen as intimate gifts. Save these for your significant other.
  • Shoes: “Shoes” in Chinese (鞋; xié) sounds like “evil” (邪; xié). Avoid sending bad luck by not giving shoes as a gift!

Chinese Birthday Vocabulary

Ready to learn Chinese vocabulary so you can say “Happy Birthday” in Chinese and express your birthday cheer? 

Here’s a handy vocab list related to birthdays. These would be great to use with Hack Chinese to build a custom “birthday” vocabulary list.

 

生日快乐!

shēngrì kuàilè!

Happy Birthday!

祝你生日快乐!

zhù nǐ shēngrì kuàilè!

Wishing you a Happy Birthday!

生日

shēng rì

birthday

生日派对

shēng rì pài duì

birthday party

生日礼物

shēng rì lǐ wù

birthday gift

生日卡

shēng rì kǎ

birthday card

滿月

mǎnyuè

full moon; to be one month old

寿面

shòu miàn

longevity noodles

希望你健康快乐地长大!

xī wàng nǐ jiàn kāng kuài lè de zhǎng dà!

I hope you grow up to be healthy and happy!

祝你生日快乐,越来越靓!

zhù nǐ shēnɡ rì kuài lè, yuè lái yuè jìng!

Wishing you a Happy Birthday—may your beauty grow!

心想事成!

xīn xiǎng shì chéng!

May all your wishes come true!

天天快乐!

tiān tiān kuài lè!

I hope you’re happy every day!

你几岁了?

nǐ jǐ suì le?

How old are you now?  

你属什么的?

nǐ shǔ shén me de?

What is your Zodiac sign?

你的生日是什么时候?

Nǐ de shēngrì shì shénme shíhòu?

When is your birthday? 

谢谢你的礼物。

xiè xiè nǐ de lǐ wù.

Thank you for the present. 

谢谢你来参加我的派对。

xiè xiè nǐ lái cān jiā wǒ de pài duì.

Thank you for coming to my party.

Now, are you ready to get in the birthday spirit? Check out this video to learn the “Happy Birthday” song in Chinese!

Conclusion

Hopefully after reading through these tips on Chinese birthday traditions, taboos, and vocabulary, you’ve learned something new about Chinese birthdays and feel prepared to wish your friends a happy birthday when the time comes around! For some practice, keep in mind that Hack Chinese is a great tool for listening to and practicing your pronunciation of Chinese birthday vocabulary so you can nail your birthday greetings.

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