Birthdays are possibly the most important day of the year, although some of us may like to avoid the reminder that we are getting older! So how do we say happy birthday in Chinese? How are birthdays celebrated in China?
Today we are going to talk about essential and authentic expressions in Chinese in relation to birthdays. This piece will also cover birthday celebrations and traditions in China, and even answer the questions that have been boggling you, such as ‘why do some people in China have two birthdays in a year?’ and ‘what is the most important food for birthday celebrations?
Birthdays in Chinese
But first, let’s take a look at how to say birthday in Chinese. It’s 生日 (shēngrì), this word is easy to learn because it literally means Birth (生) and day (日).
Next we come to the most used expression for birthdays: Happy birthday, which is 生日快乐 (shēngrì kuàilè). This is not hard either, for you can simply add the Chinese word for 快乐 behind 生日. You may notice this is the opposite of how it’s said in English.
But if you want to say this to others, you should say:
Zhù nǐ shēngrì kuàile
Happy birthday to you!
We can’t talk about birthdays without talking about age. (Of course, I don’t encourage you to ask a friend’s age on his/her birthday party. Or if you do want to know, try to find out using a smarter way like asking them what is their Chinese zodiac. )
Talking about age
After all, birthdays are a celebration of our age, and here are some basic ways to talk about this in Chinese. Below are two ways to ask about age:
Nǐ jǐ suì?
These two questions can be translated into English as “How old are you?”
Yet, they are very different in the Chinese context: the first one is for adults and the second one is for kids. This is because when you ask “几岁?”, the answer will be a number under 10. So you don’t want to ask your Chinese teacher “你几岁？” as grown-up people don’t like to be treated as kids! But you can ask a child using “你多大了?”.
Chinese people pay great respect to their elders. This is reflected in conversation about age, when you ask a Chinese grandma or grandpa about their age, the better way to ask is “您高寿？” (Nín gāoshòu). The word 寿 is to refer to an elder person’s age and their birthdays.
Also, for young women, typically between 16 to around 28, they also don’t like to be asked directly. There is a word for their ages, “芳龄” (fānglíng) meaning flower-like ages. So next time you are talking with a beautiful Chinese girl and you are really curious about her age, use this one to ask:
How are birthdays celebrated in China?
We are moving on to the next topic: how do people in China celebrate their birthdays? Do they celebrate in ways that are similar to the west? To illustrate this well, I tried to think back to my birthdays as a child. I am going to highlight the parts I found the most interesting and unique. So next time you are invited to a friend’s birthday, you will not feel confused about what’s happening!
Let’s go through a very basic thing first: When do Chinese people celebrate their birthday? Do they celebrate the date of when they are born?
This might seem like a no-brainer answer as in the west your birthday is celebrated on the day you were born each year. But in China, you can base your birthday either on the solar calendar or the lunar calendar. This can lead to some confusion.
So what’s the difference? Let me explain a bit: as the lunar calendar contains a different number of days in a year from the solar calendar, so if you (or your parents) decide to celebrate using the lunar birthday, they birthday date would be different each year on the solar calendar. Traditionally, people only celebrated the lunar calendar birthday. But nowadays, more and more people mark their birthday using the solar calendar. Yet there are people who for different reasons, have two birthdays, which means they can celebrate twice in one year! Isn’t that a wonderful thing to have two B-Day parties within two months? 😛
Speaking of birthday parties, I would say this is not a typical way for Chinese people to celebrate their birthday. Children probably value this day the most as they can’t wait to grow up! Some parents may invite their children’s friends for a birthday celebration. Although this is becoming more and more popular, overall birthdays are still seen as a family celebration. So most children’s birthday’s are celebrated by inviting family over for a delicious home-cooked meal.
Grown-ups usually celebrate their B-day with a meal out with their friends or a small celebration. If you come to a Chinese friends’ birthday dinner or party, be sure to take a gift with you! But the good news is that you don’t need to worry about paying for this meal as by Chinese tradition the meal is on the birthday boy/girl!
Also a little tip you might already know: Chinese people don’t like to open gifts during the party, because they consider this impolite… So don’t worry if they don’t open your gift in front of you, this is a way to pay respect to all the guests.
What about the most important thing, is there a cake!?
Next, food! What is a must for people to eat on birthdays? Cake of course! A sweet fruit-based cake or cheesecake would always make my day when I was a kid. Now, I like to help my family members to prepare for their birthdays because then I get the chance to buy my favorite one cake, that way I can eat it as many times as possible during the year!
We all know that you can’t have good birthday wishes without a birthday cake! Nothing gathers guests like birthday candles on a cake, where everyone gets to sing happy birthday, much to the embarrassment of the birthday boy/girl who then blow them out in exchange for wishes。
But in China, there is an older more traditional food that is often served on one’s birthday, and as strange as it will sound, it’s noodles! Even stranger the noodles are usually cooked without too much seasoning and sauce. They are called 长寿面 (Chángshòu miàn, literally, longevity noodles). The noddle signifies someone’s lifeline, so a long noodle is wishing the birthday boy/girl a long life! Preferably, there should only one single super long noodle in the bowl! (Want to try to eat it up in one go?)
I hope that this blog piece can help you to get a better understanding about birthday celebrations in China. At the very least, you will be able to wish someone a happy birthday in Chinese should you need to someday.
Lingo Bus is an online Chinese education platform that is affiliated with VIPKID. Lingo Bus focuses on providing online Chinese education for children aged 5-12 years old. Based on VIPKID’s leading online education technology, Lingo Bus connects the best Chinese teachers with young Chinese learners globally to help children around the world to learn Chinese and understand Chinese culture.