Academic journal article International Journal of Multicultural Education

Birthday Celebrations in the Ming and Qing Dynasties of China: An Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Academic journal article International Journal of Multicultural Education

Birthday Celebrations in the Ming and Qing Dynasties of China: An Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Article excerpt

Chinese Birthday Celebrations Chinese Birthday Ceremonies in Art Conclusion Sources Photo Credits from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

From February 2010 through November 2010, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is presenting a special exhibition in the Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for Chinese Decorative Arts entitled Celebration: The Birthday in Chinese Art. The exhibition includes 50 works of Chinese art from the Museum's permanent collection of Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The artworks focus on the iconography of birthday celebrations and the symbols and ideographs for Shou ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] long life), Lu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] prosperity), and Fu ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] happiness) as they appear in scroll painting, embroidery, tapestry, porcelain, ceramics, jade carvings, screens, jewelry, clothing, furniture, and lacquer boxes.


In every culture, birthdays for the young and old are generally considered a special occasion although males generally receive preferential recognition. The birthday celebration typically recognizes the celebrant's life in the past year while offering him/her good wishes for success and health in the coming year. Rites of passage in many cultures celebrate birth, adulthood, marriage, elderhood, and death.

While the celebration styles vary in different societies, activities, clothing, food, beverages, decorations and participants associated with birthday or birth year are commonly embellished with numerology and symbols of anthropomorphized nature. The exhibition enlightens viewers with specifics about traditional Chinese birthday celebrations.

Chinese Birthday Celebrations

Birth precedes the celebration of birthdays. The first ritual after a baby's birth in China is to select a name that may in part determine the baby's future. The family name is established and goes first, followed by a first or generational name based on a family birth order. Since the dynastic Chinese believed that the world was composed of five principal elements--metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, one of these elements was usually included in the name.

Buddhist influence is noted on the naming of Chinese birth years. Before Buddha (563-483 BC) departed Earth, he allegedly called all the animals to visit him and 12 appeared. To reward their loyalty Buddha named a year for each one. The year in which a child is born occurs in a 12-part cycle, similar to the 12-month Western zodiac, and is believed to determine his or her character and events in his or her life. When a Chinese child is born, he or she is considered one year old, and a second year is added after the first day of the Lunar New Year. Thirty days after the birth of a child a celebration is held to give offerings to the heaven and household gods for the protection of his or her life. The child's parents also present gifts to relatives and friends. Those gifts are dyed red or wrapped in red paper as this color symbolizes happiness. After the first birthday passes, the next important birthday celebration is the 60th, which marks the completion of a life cycle and transition into elderhood. High-ranking officials and upper-class people are also honored and celebrated in 10-year cycles after their 60th birthday celebrations.

Birthdays in dynastic China were important events for newborns and the elderly because they incorporated the Confucian ethic of filial piety as well as reverence for and worship of family authority. The Chinese family and the Five Social Relations form the basis of all just societies. These obligatory relations existed between master (ruler) and servant (subject), father and son, husband and wife, older and younger siblings and relatives, and older and younger peers/friends. Each relationship had a response based on Li (reciprocity). A ruler should be benevolent, a subject loyal; a father loving, a son obedient; an older sibling gentle, a younger sibling respectful; a husband good, a wife attentive; an older friend considerate, a younger friend deferential. …

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