A party for the baby, with unusual presents
Though it has the same name as the Western practice of throwing a party for a mother-to-be, Chinese baby “showers” are actual baths given to newborn babies. It is an ancient Chinese ceremony held on the third day after a baby’s birth – as Chinese people regard three as a lucky number – and was once one of the most important traditional Chinese customs surrounding early childhood. Called “xi san” (洗三) or “third wash,” the practice is believed to help dispel any bad luck which might follow a baby into the world, so that a baby’s life can begin afresh.
No one really knows how the tradition started, but three stories about the origin of xi san have emerged. According to one, during the Tang dynasty, the emperor Li Longji was so excited by the birth of his grandson that he ordered his servant to bathe the child in a gold basin on the baby’s third day, after which a massive celebration was held. From then on, whenever a baby was born in the palace, a similar ceremony would be conducted, until five generations later this royal custom became popular among the common people.
Another theory is that the Christian custom of baptism inspired Li Longji to introduce the Chinese baby “shower.” Li Longji is said to have been heavily influenced by Christianity, as the religion was first introduced to China in 639 AD, just before he became emperor.
Yet another possibility is that northern nomads introduced the Chinese baby “shower” to the Han nationality when they came to China in the 10th century, during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. According to legend, the northern nomads had a custom of giving ice cold baths to newborn babies to help them to resist the cold in the future. It is conceivable that the Han then borrowed from this custom and transformed it into a ceremony of their own.
Wherever the truth lies, the Chinese “baby shower” somehow became an important facet of Chinese tradition. Parents would invite the midwife (接生婆, jiesheng po) to the home to perform the ritual, usually after lunchtime. Each family member, starting with the eldest, would stand in line and pour water or toss some coins into the basin in which the baby was bathing. Sometimes fruit, dates, chestnuts and peanuts would be placed beside the basin on a plate, and people might add certain herbs to the basin as well. As people approached the basin, the midwife would bless the baby by reciting prayers relating to the objects people would put in. For example, longans would inspire the midwife to recite the line, “lian zhong san yuan (连中三元),” which meant, “bless this baby to rank at the top of the class in all three imperial civil servant exams.” If the baby appeared frightened or began to cry, it would be seen as xiang pen (响盆), or “a basin sound,” regarded as a fortuitous sign.
Following the completion of the bath, the midwife would bundle the baby up, gently stroke its body three times with a shallot and tap three times on the body with a lock and weights, saying, “first tap for smartness, a second tap for wit, grow up with tight head, hands and feet.” In Chinese, “tight” (紧, jin) refers to the hope that the baby will be prudent and clear-headed in the future. Afterwards, the parents would hold a banquet to thank all who attended the ceremony, at which time people might then “shower” gifts on the new parents.
Nowadays, the Chinese baby bath ceremony is rarely performed, as hospitals will usually bathe babies much earlier than the third day. Nevertheless, the practice still remains an important aspect of Chinese culture surrounding a baby’s rite of passage into the world.