Western birthday traditions like singing “Happy Birthday” and blowing out candles on a cake haven’t been around for very long. In fact, up until the latter half of the 19th century, most people didn’t celebrate birthdays. Some cultures marked birthdays for rulers or prominent members of the upper class, but for ordinary people, their birthday was just another day.
The shift occurred during the industrial revolution when suddenly keeping track of time started to matter: for catching trains, planning factory production, and more. Suddenly, even ordinary people paid attention to the passing seconds and minutes and the passing years with them. As children lived longer and middle-class families had fewer of them, parents started to view children as family members rather than workers. Under these conditions, celebrating your children’s birthday each year became increasingly popular, spreading from the middle class to most American families.
Since then, Western traditions have spread even further and are now popular in China and other parts of the world. In China, cakes, candles, and the birthday song joined a robust set of traditions for celebrating birthdays, especially for babies and the elderly. Similar to people living in the pre-industrial United States, ordinary Chinese people weren’t in the habit of celebrating every year, but they did mark big milestones like a child’s first birthday or an adult’s 60th. The Chinese lunar calendar and zodiac govern which birthdays are most important and influence some of the specific practices. Today, people in China celebrate with a blend of traditions that varies from family to family.
Calculating Birth Date and Age in Chinese Culture
Before you can celebrate a birthday, you have to know the date on which it falls. That may sound obvious, but in China, the traditional Chinese calendar can make things tricky. Although the Western or Gregorian calendar, called 阳历 (yánglì) in Chinese, governs official date keeping, many Chinese still use the traditional 农历 (nónglì) calendar. 农历 determines the dates of holidays like Spring Festival, and many people still celebrate their lunar birthday. This means a Chinese person can have two birthdays: their “official” birthday according to the Gregorian calendar, and their lunar birthday, which falls on a different calendar date every year. Luckily, there are online conversion tools to convert dates between the two calendars.
Just as determining someone’s birthday involves complexity, so does determining someone’s age. Chinese tradition dictates a different way of calculating age from the Western method. In Chinese, the word 岁 (suì) corresponds roughly to “years old”, but a child is considered 1 岁 as soon as she is born. At the first Lunar New Year after her birth, she becomes 2 岁 and then gains a subsequent 岁 at each Lunar New Year after that. Officially, China now follows the convention of considering babies zero years old at birth, but some Chinese people still say they are one or even two years older than their official age. The traditional age calculation may also result in older relatives mentioning that someone is now 25 right after Lunar New Year, even if his birthday is in July and he’ll still technically be 24 for another several months.
A: 你现在几岁？ (Nǐ xiànzài jǐ suì?) How old are you?
B: 我现在24岁。(Wǒ xiànzài 24 suì) I am 24 years old.
A: 你的生日是什么时候？(Nǐ de shēngrì shì shénme shíhòu?) When is your birthday?
B: 我的生日是9月16日。（Wǒ de shēngrì shì 9 yuè 16 rì.) My birthday is September 16th.
Birthday Traditions and the Chinese Zodiac
Knowing the Chinese zodiac or 生肖 (shēngxiào) can help you calculate a person’s age and birth year since each animal sign recurs every twelve years. To find out someone’s zodiac symbol, you can ask someone 你属什么的？(nǐ shǔ shén me de?). If your friend replies 我属马 (Wǒ shǔ mǎ), she was born in the Year of the Horse, meaning she was born in 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, or 2014. You can probably narrow it down from there based on her appearance. If she tells you her elemental sign as well, you can pinpoint the exact year. If she is an Earth Horse, she was born in 1978.
Traditionally, the zodiac dictates which birthdays warrant bigger celebrations. Chinese people tend to emphasize the birthdays at intervals of twelve from their birth date; these years coincide with the animal sign of their birth year and are known as the person’s 本命年 (běnmìngnián). During one’s 本命年, Chinese people traditionally wear red underwear or other red clothing for extra good luck. The 60th birthday coincides with both the animal and elemental signs of the person’s birth year. For this reason, Chinese people view the 60th birthday as the completion of their first full cycle of life and their entry into a new cycle. Children typically organize big celebrations to honor their parents when they reach this important milestone.
Birthday Wishes in Mandarin
Now that you’ve figured out the date and age to celebrate, you’ll want to know how to wish the birthday boy or girl a happy birthday in Mandarin. Luckily, this part is more straightforward than calculating traditional birth dates or ages:
生日快乐 | Shēngrì kuàilè | Happy Birthday!
This is the simplest and most common way to wish someone a happy birthday in Mandarin. 生日 means “birthday” and 快乐 means happy, so the word order is opposite from in English.
祝你生日快乐 | Zhù nǐ shēngrì kuàilè | Happy birthday to you!
Adding 祝你 at the beginning of this phrase turns it into a full sentence, literally meaning “I wish you a happy birthday”. Put a pin in this one, because it will come up again when we learn the birthday song in Mandarin. If you want to be a bit more formal, you can swap out 你 for the more polite 您 (nín).
心想事成 | xīnxiǎngshìchéng
You can use this idiom after 生日快乐 to give someone your best wishes on their birthday. It means “May all your wishes come true.”
长命百岁 | cháng mìng bǎi suì
Use this polite expression to wish an elderly person will live a long life. The literal meaning is “May you live to be 100 years old.”
祝您福如东海，寿比南上 | hù nín fúrú Dōng Hǎi, shòu bǐ nán shàng.
You can use this poetic sentence to wish an older person happiness, fortune, and long life. The character 寿 refers to long life, particularly for elderly people. It translates to “May your fortune be as immense as the East Sea, and may you live a long life.”
祝您身体健康，越活越年轻 | zhù nín shēntǐ jiànkāng, yuè huó yuè niánqīng
This humorous phrase wishes good health for an elderly person, and also that they’ll grow younger with each passing year. The literal meaning is “May you be healthy and get younger and younger.”
希望你健康快乐地长大 | xīwàng nǐ jiànkāng kuàilè de zhǎngdà
Use this phrase after 生日快乐 to wish a child future happiness on his or her birthday. It translates to, “I hope you grow up healthy and happy.”
Singing Happy Birthday in Mandarin
Singing “Happy Birthday” has become popular in China and has a very simple Mandarin translation. Most people know the following lyrics, which follow the same melody as the English version:
(zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè)
Happy Birthday to you
(zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè)
Happy Birthday to you
(zhù nǐ shēng rì kuài lè)
Happy Birthday to you
(zhù nǐ yǒng yuǎn kuài lè)
Wish you happiness forever
In college, I learned a slightly different version where the last line is the same as the other three: 祝你生日快乐. In short, once you’ve learned this phrase, you should have no issues singing “Happy Birthday” in Mandarin.
Celebrating Birthdays in Chinese Culture: Food
Although China does not have a long tradition of eating birthday cake 生日蛋糕 (shēngrì dàngāo), this practice is becoming more popular, especially for kids’ birthdays. When I lived in Chengdu, people often went to bakeries like 85°C to purchase cakes decked out in thick frosting and fruit for special occasions like birthdays. So if you have a hankering for cake on your birthday in China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, that option is available.
Traditionally, however, Chinese people eat noodles to represent long life, both on birthdays and at New Year’s. Called 寿面 (shòumiàn) or longevity noodles, they are never cut or broken during cooking, and people try to eat them without biting them in half for extra good luck. Pan-frying is the most common way to prepare them. Children traditionally serve their parents a bowl of noodles on the morning of their 60th birthday to celebrate their long life.
Peaches also represent longevity in Chinese culture, so peach-shaped buns called 寿桃包 (shòu táo bāo) are another popular birthday treat, especially when celebrating an older person. In Chinese mythology, celestial beings consume Peaches of Immortality every 3,000 years to ensure they will live forever. In the famous novel Journey to the West, Monkey King seizes an opportunity to eat some of the magical fruit he is supposed to be guarding and gains immortality. The traditional buns are dyed with food coloring to look like peaches and contain sweet red bean paste.
Celebrating Birthdays in Chinese Culture: Gifts
Chinese people are happy to receive gifts 礼物 (lǐwù) on their birthdays. Remember to present your gift with both hands, no matter how small it is, to indicate respect for the recipient. You can give food as a gift, especially any of the auspicious foods listed above. Wine or spirits are also popular gifts, because the word for alcohol 酒 (jiǔ) is pronounced the same as 久 (jiǔ) which means “a long time”, and therefore also refers to longevity.
Red envelopes or 红包 (hóng bāo) filled with cash are another popular gift for people of any age. If you’re wondering how much to give, $20 USD or ¥100 RMB is typical. If you choose another amount, you should pick an even number that does not contain the number four. The Mandarin word for the number four is 四 (sì), which sounds similar to 死 (sǐ), the word for death.
Also avoid giving clocks of any kind, including watches. This is due to pronunciation, too: “give a clock” in Chinese is 送钟 (sòng zhōng), which sounds the same as the word for attending a funeral, 送终 (sòng zhōng). You should also avoid giving hats in general, but especially green hats. When one’s parents pass away, children of the deceased wear mourning hats called 孝帽 (xiào mào), so hats can remind people of funerals. And the phrase 戴绿帽子 (dài lǜ màozi) means someone’s spouse is cheating on them, so you definitely want to avoid that one.
Practice Key Mandarin Phrases for Celebrating Birthdays
If you get invited to a birthday party while in China, you may feel a little nervous about speaking Mandarin in front of so many people. However, this is a great opportunity to practice listening comprehension and speaking and to learn more about Chinese culture. Practice some of the key phrases in this article before the party so that you feel confident when you arrive. Speechling's native speakers can help ensure your pronunciation and tones are spot on. You may also want to prepare some basic conversation topics so you can chat with your fellow guests. Remember that birthdays are a time for celebration, so don't forget to relax and have fun!