A traditional look at how the Chinese predict a child’s future
While most Chinese people no longer believe in it, zhuā zhōu (抓周) – an ancient method for predicting an infant’s future career – has been delicately preserved as a traditional custom. Many Chinese parents still hold the event on their child’s first birthday. Zhua, or “to pick,” and zhou, meaning “first anniversary,” is a ceremony at which parents place a variety of objects, each symbolic of a future career path, on a plate and then have the child pick one. Supposedly, the object the child selects will not only reveal their future career but also certain personality traits and interests.
The tradition, said to have started during the Three Kingdoms period, arose following the death of Sun He, the prince of the Eastern Wu Kingdom. His father, the emperor Sun Quan, grew worried about which of his grandsons would succeed him, so a Wu citizen named Jing Yang suggested he place a few items on a plate and ask each of his grandsons to pick something. Sun Hao grabbed a bamboo slip – an ancient form of Chinese paper – in one hand, and an imperial belt – symbolizing royal power – in another. Both were deemed fortuitous choices that led to him being chosen as the new emperor.
Traditionally, the items laid out for boys and girls are different. In imperial China, items like a ruler, makeup, needles and thread were placed on a girl’s plate, as women were expected to stay at home and the purpose of their zhua zhou was to see which area of housework or crafts they would excel at. For boys, parents would select swords, pens and books to see if they would become a scholar, hero or poet. It was also common to have shallots and celery for both boys and girls as additional choices, because both of these vegetables possess Chinese names with positive homonyms of virtuous temperaments: If a child picked celery (芹, qín) it meant the child would be industrious (勤, qín) and shallots (葱, cōng) denote intelligence (聪, cōng). Nowadays, Chinese people have modernized the items by including objects that correlate with more fashionable career paths – such as cell phones, a computer mouse and CDs – and abandoning things like the needle and thread.