Today is 人日 rén rì (also known as 人生 rén shēng). It is celebrated on the 7th day of the 1st month of the new year according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar. There are a couple of origin myths for ren ri, but the most common is simply that the Goddess (女娲 nǚ wā) created people on the 7th day. It is considered very good luck to be born on this day!
There are a few different ren ri traditions around China, such as hiking, writing poetry, fireworks, and giving gifts of people-shaped paper cut designs. In the south (including outside China – Malaysia, Singapore, etc.) it’s tradition to eat a special dish – 鱼生 yú shēng. 鱼生 means “raw fish” but is also a play on words, as it sounds like words for prosperity/abundance (裕盛 yù shèng). 鱼生 usually consists of seven finely sliced ingredients including vegetables, fish, and a sort of dried noodle cracker (plus seasonings). Everyone digs in with chopsticks to toss the slivers around on the communal plate, then they are eaten with individual bowls of congee (rice porridge). (See a great example with photos here)
There are a few common English translations for ren ri, such as “Human Day” or “Everyman’s Birthday”. In China, today is the day that everyone adds a year to their age. On the day of birth a child is considered to be 1 year old, and then every ren ri one year is added. So on my first Chinese new year I was 2 (even though by western reckoning I was only 8 months old). The method of counting varies from place to place, though – in the south I am 32 today, in the north I am 33, and these days solar birthdays are gaining more acceptance so I could stay 31 for another few months. (There’s a great post on this confusion at China Elevator Stories!)
This is a very special year for my family. Both my parents were born in the last year of the Wood Horse in 1954, which means that they are now entering their SECOND Wood Horse year, having now been through an entire 60 year zodiac cycle (all combinations of the 12 zodiac animals and 5 elements). The 60th birthday is therefore a huge milestone in Chinese culture. Actually, it’s the first birthday generally celebrated. While there is now some Western influence in China giving people the idea of birthday celebrations for individuals, traditionally there is next to no recognition of one’s birthday. The zodiac is more important – the YEAR of one’s birth. So there are special traditions during your own zodiac year (every 12 years) but nothing for the DAY of your birth. From 60 onward, each additional decade is recognition with an increasingly lavish party. As the oldest child, it is my Chinese responsibility to organise said lavish parties…
The Horse zodiac year is considered an auspicious one – it is associated with success. People born in the year of the horse are supposed to be intelligent, charming, and independent, but their most prominent characteristic is success (they hate failure). Gotta say, that fits my parents! They could be called 千里马 qiān lǐ mǎ – the horse who travels 1,000 li – a phrase for these successful Horses. (If you’re interested in Horse astrology, you can read more here). The “Wood” element year is associated with Spring, when there is new growth, and the colour green. Red is always a lucky colour, but green is also a lucky colour of those born in Wood years. That’s also fun for my family – red and green make a nice Scottish tartan for my Dad’s Macdonald heritage, and my Mum has Irish ancestors with the surname “Green”.
All superstition aside, it’s going to be wonderful to celebrate my parents’ 60th birthdays this year. They’ve both beat cancer in the past 3 years, and while I was able to briefly visit my Mum between chemo rounds, for the most part I’ve been a long way away through it all. It’s a great blessing to start the year knowing they are both healthy, and that in a year’s time I’ll be close by and able to see more of them.