Tomorrow is my younger grandson’s 1st birthday, a time for fun and rejoicing at having this special little chap in our family. Alas, because we live in China and he lives in India, we will not be with him on this special occasion. However, cards and gifts have been sent, and with luck we will have some skype-time to wish him a very Happy Birthday, and to sing ‘Zhu ni shengri kuaile!’
Here in China an infant’s first birthday is celebrated with an old custom zhuāzhōu (抓周) which roughly translates as ‘the one year old grab’. An informal party is held for friends and relations and the parents/grandparents set out a number of small items on a mat or tray, and then the infant is placed in front of it. Everyone watches to see which will be the first item the child picks up without any encouragement from family and friends. This item will indicate their future path in life.
Whilst this completely random method of career planning was taken fairly seriously in the past, nowadays it is just regarded as an enjoyable ceremony – though who knows, many a parent may harbour the wish that it really will predict the future.
Zhuāzhōu ceremonies began way back (as everything does in China) during the Three Kingdoms period. Legend has it that after the death of Prince Sun He of the Eastern Wu Kingdom, Sun He‘s father the Emperor Sun Quan was undecided as to which of his grandsons should succeed him; a courtier suggested that the Emperor place a few items on a tray and ask each of his grandsons to pick something. Sun Hao grabbed a bamboo slip (an ancient form of Chinese paper) in one hand, and an imperial belt (symbolizing royal power) in the other . These were thought to be such auspicious choices that he should be chosen as the next Emperor, and so he was. Actually it turned into a bad method for choosing an heir as Sun Hao is on the list of Top 10 Insane Chinese Emperors!
The items laid out for the infant to select from were usually things such as a small knife, an abacus, some coins, a book, a calligrapher’s brush – the idea being that if a child picked up the knife he would be a soldier, the book indicated a scholar, the brush meant he would be an artist, the abacus an accountant etc. – you get the idea. Today the items might well include a computer mouse, a cell phone, a toy stethoscope, a ball, a toy car or plane, a toy drum or kazoo. Girls will get slightly different things laid out, such as a comb, a shoe, a spoon, , or even a lipstick in addition to the other things but usually omitting any weaponry. I was puzzled by two items that are frequently included in the zhuāzhōu selection, namely a piece of celery and a spring onion (scallion). Then a friend explained to me that they are there because the word for spring onion (葱 cōng) and the word for ‘intelligence’ ( 聪 cōng) sound exactly alike, so the one represents the other positive virtue on the tray. Likewise with celery (芹 qín) which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘industrious’ (勤 qín). The Chinese do love their homonyms!
There is a wonderful display of ancient zhuāzhōu trays in the Capital Museum here in Beijing, together with pictures and models of children making their selections, it is well worth a visit if you are in BJ.
So if I were with my darling grandson tomorrow I would be setting out a zhuāzhōu tray for him, and watching like a hawk to see what his future might be!