Chinese Jubilees, celebrating big birthdays in China

Today my wife asked, “What are we going to do for my mother’s birthday?” She said it was a very important birthday. “Does your mother turn sixty this year?” I asked surprised. “No, she turns fifty-nine,” she said. As a European person, this answer surprised me. And so Liya explained. She actually had to search on the Internet because she wasn’t sure about certain things. Why do Chinese people celebrate jubilees when their age ends with nine and not with zero?

In China celebrating one year before the real jubilee is done only by people who are going to be turning fifty or sixty. Actually, the truth is that Chinese people aren’t supposed to celebrate their birthdays before they turn fifty. However, because of the influences from modern society, Chinese people celebrate their birthdays every year, starting from when they are born. Every ten years people enter a new period. The transition year (round anniversary) is very important and that’s why a person should experience it peacefully and without big celebrations. There is a Chinese proverb that says: “The moon waxes only to wane” (meaning that from the top you can only go down) (月满则亏). That’s why the ’round anniversary’ isn’t celebrated during its peak – so nothing can go wrong. Chinese never celebrate after the date of birth. It brings bad luck. You can celebrate your birthday before but not after. According to the tradition, a man gets one year older on New Year’s Eve and he doesn’t wait for his real birthday. For example, I was born on February 9th, but last year I was already 26 years old in January because that’s when the Chinese New Year was. For this reason, the ’round anniversary’ is always celebrated a year before when a person is x9. If a person was still waiting for his birthday in a particular year, based on Chinese tradition he would already have had the jubilee on the New Year. This involves one more interesting fact. Sometimes a funny situation happens in China. When a baby—in the way we count—is two days old, in China he is already two years old. How is this possible? In China the time when a baby is in the mother’s womb is counted as the first year of his life. Therefore, every single child born is already one year old. However, if the baby is born, for instance, two days before New Year’s Eve, the baby is one year old only for two days. Right after midnight, he turns two (on his ID he has ‘our age’).

The second reason why we celebrate the ’round anniversary’ earlier is because of the meaning of the numbers 9 and 10 in Chinese Feng Shui. In Chinese, the number nine is a bad number, and that’s why a person with this number in his birthday needs the most well wishes and thoughts so the bad spirits could be chased away. The best way to do it is through firework celebrations. This is another reason why they celebrate the anniversaries a year before. Depending on the location, it could differ. Some places they believe that the number 9 is dangerous when it is multiplied and we don’t see it at first. That’s why they celebrate birthdays when a person is 9, 27, 36, 45, etc.

The third reason is the Chinese phonology. I wrote about it in my blog several times. In Chinese, many words are pronounced the same and because of this similarity some people avoid certain words, or on the contrary they seek them out. In our case, we have two examples. The number nine in Chinese is pronounced jiῠ and so is the word ‘long’. That’s why when we celebrate a x9 birthday, we wish for a ‘long x9 life’ (长长久久的吉祥寓意). On the contrary, the number ten is pronounced shi and the word death is pronounced si. That’s why they avoid this number when celebrating birthdays.

Finally, in the Chinese language the word ‘almost’ in a literal interpretation of individual signs is written as ‘eight and nine are not far from ten’ (八九不离十). The expression ‘nine is not far from ten’ is pronounced the same as ‘in nine you don’t die’ (九不离世). That’s why they celebrated birthdays at the age x9, because at this time ‘we don’t die’. (If someone tells you that Chinese is an easy language, spoiler alert – THIS PERSON DOESN’T SPEAK CHINESE or knows anything about it!)

If you continued reading up to here, I’m very glad. Because explaining all of this in English is very difficult, and I am afraid that I put you off of the reading. Those who I didn’t put off, I’ll tell you something interesting. If you were to celebrate your birthday the Chinese way, as women you can be 29 years old twice and as men you can be 39 twice. The numbers thirty and forty are bad for men and women. That’s why a woman in China doesn’t celebrate her thirtieth birthday, but she celebrates her twenty-ninth birthday twice. And the man celebrates his thirty-ninth birthday twice. In reality, this custom is not widespread and it’s possible that it’s only a local one. I came across this custom only in one article. When I asked my wife about it, she said that she only celebrates her birthday up to twenty-five and that she will celebrate only her twenty-fifth birthday until she dies.

To conclude, I would like to say that China is huge. There are many people, and customs are slightly different depending on the part of the country. Mainly the customs are slowly disappearing. Not everyone lives according to these traditions, and not everyone knows about them. I tried to look up everything I could about them, but I only managed to find a couple Chinese articles. In English there was nothing (in Slovak it’s not even worth searching). The times change, Chinese people change and the old customs are being forgotten. It’s a shame because they are fascinating. So what are we going to get for my mother-in-law for her modest fifty- ninth anniversary? In China there are strict rules for this too.