Birthdays: A Lesson Plan for a Chinese Class that Compares Chinese and Western Traditions

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Using “birthdays” to learn about Chinese culture

A unit on China can be enhanced by discussing the way that Chinese celebrate birthdays. In nearly every society in the world, birthday celebrations offer an insight on its unique quality of civilization, and an opportunity to teach and learn the language as well. Differences between the Western and Chinese experience are investigated, including a comparision of the Chinese and Western “zodiac”. Links to photographs are provided.

Happy Birthday 生日快乐

生 shēng 日ri shēngri is birthday

生shēng as a verb means “giving birth to”; as in English, it is a combination word used with 日ri which can mean “day”.

kuàilè 快乐 here means “happy” but this is actually another combination word with the first part, kuài 快 meaning “fast” but also taking on other meanings such as “gratified”. The second part, lè乐 also meaning “cheerful”. It is a characteristic of the Chinese language to combine characters that mean almost the same thing.

A logical birthday question: how old are you?

1. To children:

Nǐ 你 jī nián今年jǐ几suì 岁 literally “you, this year, how much age?”

Notice the difference between jī 今 this (year) and jǐ几 how much? A different tone on the “i” denotes a different character

2. Assuming an adolescent or an adult is speaking to someone of the same age:

Nǐ 你 jī nián今年duō dà 多 大 literally “you this year more old (?)” The emphasis here is on duō dà 多 大 ,” how big have you become ?”. Duō dà expresses growth.

3. To an elderly person or senior:

Nín 您 jī nián 今年 duō dà多 大suìshu 岁数: This ‘Nín 您’ is distinctive because it includes the polite form of “you” but other than that it retains the duō dà 多 大 structure of the regular query

As with many European cultures, Chinese language retains in language form the hierarchy and classification of the society. The Chinese are very aware of what they consider to be a “natural order”, including relationships and hierarchy. Relatives are classified as to whether they belong to the husband’s side or the wife’s side of the family. Siblings in the family are ordered as to whether they are older or younger brothers or sisters. Siblings are not “brothers” or “sisters”, they are “older brothers” or younger sisters”, and so forth.

The Birthday Party

Different sorts of terminology are associated with the birthday party itself. Aspects of the party are associated with special foods, and there are links at the end of the article so you can see exactly what the foods look like.

Zhùhè 祝贺 means to celebrate. Again, a combination word, with zhù 祝 meaning “ to express good wishes”. Hè 贺 means “to congratulate”; we appear to be saying the same thing twice. jùhhuì聚会 is a get together, a party

Now for the food:

The most distinctive dish as in this party is the Cháng shòumiàn 长寿命. This is a curious expression; Cháng means “long” and when put together with shòu suggests a long natural life-span, longevity. Miàn 面 is a surface or face, but also is used for noodles. The result is a strange looking noodle dish that can be seen at one of the web sites at the end of the article. The goal is to eat the noodles without breaking the noodle outside your mouth. These are eaten at birthdays and at the New Year, much as Americans or Europeans may drink champagne.

There could not be a birthday party without cake, and the Chinese call this cake 蛋糕 dàn gāo. 蛋 dàn means “egg”, and this cake resembles angel food cake. Dàn gāo are elegantly decorated. The most popular decorations use bright colors such as gold and red, often, with a model of an animal that is considered powerful or lucky, such as the dragon.

Chinese and Western Concepts of Time: the Chinese Animal Birthday Signs

The Chinese animal birthday signs have often been termed the Chinese zodiac, but there is almost no relation between the Western zodiac and the Chinese birthday signs. The Western zodiac describes a ring of constellations that lines the ecliptic, which is the apparent path of the sun across the sky over the course of the year. The zodiac is a celestial coordinate system. The observation of the heavens along these lines dates back to Hellenistic and Babylonian astronomy.

The Chinese animal signs are a 12-year cycle used for dating the years. They represent a cyclical concept of time, rather than the Western linear concept of time. The Chinese Lunar Calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, and is constructed in a different fashion than the Western solar calendar. In the Chinese calendar, the beginning of the year falls somewhere between late January and early February. The Chinese have adopted the Western calendar since 1911, but the lunar calendar is still used for festive occasions such as the Chinese New Year. Many Chinese calendars will print both the solar dates and the Chinese lunar dates.

The twelve Chinese signs are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig. Many Chinese do believe that fortune will follow behavior associated with the dominant features of an anmal sign.

Web site for Cháng shòumiàn:

Web site for蛋糕 dàngāo: