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Child-rearing Ceremonies

Child-rearing Ceremonies


Birth. The birth of a child was clearly of great importance to the family in ancient China. Every year, between the eleventh and fifteenth days of the first and eighth months in the Chinese lunar year, the temples of SongZi Guan Ying (child-giving goddess) were crowded, especially by married young women who were eager to have children. They went there to procure special, symbolic, paper shoes blessed by the goddess. These shoes were lined up on a table and surrounded by burning incense and candles. After offering incense and candles before the image of SongZi Guan Ying, while simultaneously making pledges of returning the favor if the goddess would aid her in bearing a child (her first choice was always a male), a woman picked a pair of shoes supposedly belonging to her and took them home. She would place the shoes in a special place in her room for worshiping, as if they were connected with the goddess. She would pray in front of the shoes on the first and fifteenth day of each month until she became pregnant. After the child was born, the temple from which the shoes were obtained would be thanked with offerings.

Paper Flowers. In some regions married women went to a temple to pick up paper flowers instead of shoes from the goddess and then placed them in a paper vase at home. During the year a woman eager to have children made as many trips as possible to obtain these flowers, which were believed to be blessed, and burned them after a certain ceremony was performed by a sorceress or sorcerer. It was said that this custom was based on the popular belief that bearing a child would have much similarity to rearing a flower in a vase, and therefore repeating this ceremony made one’s wish a reality.

Pregnancy. Once pregnant, a woman’s prenatal care started early. There were several rituals expected to be practiced during a pregnancy. She should live separate from her husband until after the birth of the child. While sleeping, she should lie on her back; while sitting or standing, her body should be in an upright position, with her weight evenly distributed. She should not laugh loudly. She should not eat spicy or bad-flavored food, nor anything that was not cut properly. To eat improperly prepared food was thought to give a careless disposition to the child, as it was an indication of a careless disposition on the part of the mother. For a similar reason she should not sit down on a mat that was awry but first should turn it square. Her eyes should not see bad colors, ugly sights, or obscene pictures. She should hear no obscene sounds, nor should she gossip or listen to improper conversations. She should be careful of her language. She should read good poetry, tell nice stories, and, when about to retire at night, call in blind story-tellers and listen to beautiful tales so that, while sleeping, her mind might dwell upon lovely things. All the months of her pregnancy she must be watchful of things by which her mind was affected and keep a strict guard upon her temper. If she was affected by good things, the child would be good; if by bad things, the child would be bad. If she was careful to obey these rules, her child would be born physically, mentally, and morally in perfect condition.

Ceremony. Toward the end of the pregnancy a priest from a nearby temple would be hired to perform a special ceremony to drive away any evil spirits, so that the woman would be safe during childbirth. In some regions, for example, in the southern part of China, such a ceremony was carried out meticulously: “a table is spread with eight or ten plates of food, with incense, candles, flowers, and mock-money. A priest recites the classics appropriate to the occasion. Ten or twenty pieces of a kind of grass cut up about an inch long, and several likenesses of the crab, cut out of common paper, are put into the censer and burned. Or sometimes several live crabs, after being used in the ceremony, are taken and turned out into the street. It is thought that these will greatly aid in frightening those bad spirits or propitiate their good will, so that they will not dare to come into the room at the time of childbirth.” At the end of the ceremony the ashes of the incense were collected and wrapped up in a piece of red paper to be stored until thirty days after childbirth. The purpose was to deter evil spirits from coming back to disturb the mother and newborn baby.

Child Delivery. At the time of childbirth, in case of difficult labor there would be another ceremony performed to drive away any evil spirit that prevented the child from coming into the world. A priest again was invited to per-form the ceremony by arranging on a table three cups of wine, a plate containing five different kinds of fruit, together with lit incense and candles. “After the priest has mumbled over some unintelligible jargon or formula, attended with thumping on the table, for about half an hour, he produces three yellow paper charms, two or three inches wide, and a foot or more long; one of these is to be stuck over the door of the bedroom or on the bed-curtain, one is to be worn on the head of the sick woman, and the ashes of the other, mixed with hot water, is to be given to her to drink.” When the delivery took more than the usual time, another emergency ceremony was performed at the bedside of the groaning expectant mother. Her family members performed a special show in which a paper figure of the “child-giving goddess” was maneuvered to dance around in the room and over to the body of the suffering woman and then returned to dancing again. It was believed that the goddess would help relieve suffering and make labor go easily. If the delivery was successful after its use, a thanksgiving ceremony would be given in praise of the divine power of the goddess.

First Celebration. Celebrations that were most intimately connected with the family had to do with birthdays and the lives of children. On the third day after a child was born, it was given its first bath, performed often by the midwife. Special female friends of the family would be invited to witness the ceremony. Immediately after the bath most families observed an important custom by “binding baby’s wrists,” in hopes that it would help the baby to grow up well behaved and to live a prosperous adult life. Some families bound ancient coins around each wrist with a red cotton cord; others put a loose red string in the shape of a ring around the wrist; and still others decorated the wrists with a string of miniature silver toys. The baby carried them for up to a whole year, depending on local customs.

Second Celebration. The second celebration in the life of a child was when the family performed the custom of “shaving the child’s head” when it was a month old. Many parents, after the shaving, purposefully let the hair grow only on the front part of the head. A boy’s hair was shaved regularly, but with a small portion of hair always left on the top of his head, a style he wore until he was sixteen years old. Such a hairdo was believed to be conducive to the health of a boy. Others explained that doing so helped protect the child’s soft spot on the skull. Girls were allowed to grow a patch of hair on both sides of the head.

First Feast. The head of the child was often shaved before the guests arrived; some families performed the shaving in front of the ancestral tablets. A feast was prepared by the parents for the guests, who often came with presents such as lacquered boxes in which were placed cakes in the form of the peach of longevity; or round cakes with the character for “long life” stamped or written in red ink; or vermicelli, which when cooked appeared in long strings, indicative of the guests’ wish that the child have a long life. The maternal grandmother of the child was always expected to bring or send gifts of clothing or special food on this day.

Second Feast. When the child was one year old, the family gave another feast. Friends and relatives gathered and brought presents for the child. Before the feast commenced, a large platter was placed on a table, usually set before the ancestral tablets. On the platter lay several items,

such as money scales, a pair of shears, a foot measure, a brass mirror, brush pen, ink stone, abacus, and one or two books. The child, usually dressed in new garments, was allowed to see these items and to make a selection. The first thing it took in its hand was supposed to indicate the profession or calling it would follow. If the child chose a brush pen, ink stone, or book, it would be a scholar; if an abacus, a merchant or banker; or any kind of tool, a tradesman. The tradition was said to originate from a legendary story from the Song dynasty (960-1279): on the first anniversary of his birthday a boy was asked to make a selection of objects spread on a bamboo sieve. His first picks were two miniature military weapons in one hand and two small sacrificial vessels in the other hand. His second pick was a seal. After these selections the boy showed no interest in other things on the sieve. As it turned out, he became chancellor of the empire. Since then, the ceremony became a common custom for families to observe on the celebration of children’s first anniversary. A different set of objects would be placed on the platter for females—scissors, a thimble, or other things that would be appropriate to indicate the scope of a girl’s life.

Lucky Stars. Those families that had a sick or physically weak child performed a ceremony called “worshiping lucky stars,” which were said to exist in the sky in both the northern and southern heavens. Stars in the northern heavens represented the god of longevity; stars in the southern heavens represented the god of fortune. In folk belief, worshiping lucky stars brought benefits—life and fortune—to sickly children. This ceremony was frequently performed on the fourteenth or fifteenth day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar year, or alternatively on the child’s birthday. The origin of this custom was based on a legendary story about how a boy changed his predestined fate: Once upon a time there was a young man who wandered into a street and ran into an old fortune-teller named Kuan-lo, who sized up the young man, saying, “You are a fine boy, but unfortunately, your life is to be so short.” The young man then asked how long his life was to be, and Kuan-lo told him that he was to die at the age of nineteen. This prediction really frightened the young man because he was near that age. In a panic he asked the fortune-teller what he could do to avoid his bad fortune. Kuan-lo instructed him to carry a plate of preserved venison and a bottle of wine to the top of a certain mountain, where he would find two old men playing chess. He was told to place the venison and wine by the side of the men without saying a word and then wait patiently until they had finished the game. The young man followed Kuan-lo’s instructions and climbed to the top of the mountain. He saw two mysterious men playing chess. Quietly he placed the food and drink next to the chess table and waited patiently until the two men finished the game. Then the young man walked over and offered them food and drink. Having eaten the offerings, the two men turned to the young man and asked how they could help him. The young man told them the story and begged them to save him from dying young. The men took out a book of records and after a careful examination found that the young man was indeed almost finished with his life. To save his life, they took a pen and changed the figure nineteen to ninety-nine with a single stroke on the record. The Chinese worshiped these two mysterious men, whom they believed were lucky stars that came from the northern and southern heavens, and who could change the course of an individual’s life. On the day of this ceremony some families fashioned a table layout, presented in the format of seven stars in the heavens, which they filled generously with food. Sometimes a Daoist priest would be hired to do some praise chanting for one family by another.

Schooling. When the child was old enough to begin to study, the calendar and soothsayers were consulted, and a lucky day was selected for entering a school. Children usually went to the family or village school or to a private tutoring studio. Some regional customs required a boy on the first day of school to bring two small candles, a few sticks of incense, and a small amount of mock money. Then he would bow, while burning these articles, in front of a paper with some titles of Confucius written on it. This simple ceremony was called “entering school” or “worshiping the sage.” Some regional customs also required a boy to worship both Confucius and his own ancestors. After doing so, the child entered school, where his teacher selected a name to replace his Nai Min (milk name), which had been given to him by his mother. The classic book Li ji (Canon of Rites) laid out the basic procedures of training children that became the primary mode of education in traditional China. According to the Li ji, when a child was able to eat without assistance, parents should teach him or her to use the right hand. When they were able to speak,

parents should train boys to be confident and clear in response, whereas girls learned to be submissive and soft in voice. At the age of six, children learned how to identify numbers and the names of cardinal points. At seven, boys and girls were not allowed to play on the same mat or eat together. At eight, they learned how to behave properly both inside and outside of the home by following their elders. At nine, children were taught to acquaint them-selves with the cycles of months and years.


Isaac Taylor Headland, Home Life in China (New York: Macmillan, 1914).

Thomas H. C. Lee, Education in Traditional China: A History (Leiden & Boston: E. J. Brill, 2000).

Leon E. Stover, The Cultural Ecology of Chinese Civilization: Peasants and Elites in the Last of the Agrarian States (New York: Pica Press, 1974).

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