Happy Birthday! Today is Renri, the seventh day of the Lunar New Year. Renri literally translates into “People’s Day”.
Back in the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD), scholar Dongfang Shuo, who was widely believed to be a Daoist xian (an immortal), wrote the Book of Divination, which focused on the creation of heaven and Earth.
According to the book, when Nüwa – a goddess in Chinese mythology – created the world, she made a different creature on each of the first seven days, starting with chickens, then dogs, boars, sheep, cows, horses, and finally, humans.
Legend has it that Nüwa created mankind because she felt lonely. She moulded humans from clay into different shapes and sizes. These people later became the nobility, or society’s upper class, who would enjoy more privileges because they were created by Nüwa’s own hands.
However, the majority of mankind was created by the goddess pulling some strings across the mud, because creating every human by hand was too tiring and inefficient. These humans became the working classes.
The work was finished on the seventh day. That’s why, since the Han dynasty, it’s been tradition for people to celebrate their “birthday” on the seventh day of the new year.
In ancient China, it was common for people to wear head ornaments called rensheng, made from gold jewellery and ribbons, on this special occasion. To this day, some communities in Guangdong and Sichuan provinces still celebrate Renri by making paper cuttings of human shapes and sticking them on their windows. Women may also carve little human shapes on their hair clips as accessories.
If the weather is good on Renri, people usually take it as a sign of prosperity and wealth in the coming year.
Some Chinese people also believe they should respect each of the six animals on the day they were created. This is why they may avoid eating meat during the first few days of the new year. Prison guards should also treat their inmates more kindly on Renri – by not torturing them, for example.
There are also some “lucky” dishes that people like to eat on Renri, such as “seven vegetables soup” and “seven vegetables congee”. The ingredients in these dishes – mustard greens, chard, celery, garlic, lettuce, chives, and Chinese kale – sound similar in Mandarin to phrases used to wish people happiness, wisdom, health and good relationships.
Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese celebrate Renri by having “seven-coloured raw fish” instead of the seven vegetables. In Chinese, “fish” and “surplus” are pronounced the same way, and it’s common for people to wish their friends a happy new year and enjoy having enough “leftover” money from the previous year.
In Hong Kong, it is no longer trendy to celebrate the day with traditional activities and food. But when people see each other on Renri, they still tend to wish each other a happy birthday. So don’t be surprised when people say that to you today!