While we tend to take living to an old age for granted these days, it should be noted that during ancient times, life expectancy was not as pretty as it is today.
In the early 1900s for example, the average life expectancy of people in general was in the 40s. And it would go lower during even earlier times.
This was not limited to the average person. Even Zhou Yu (周瑜) for example, of Red Cliff fame, died at the young age of 35 and was unable to witness his army’s greatest triumphs.
So living to a ripe old age is something to celebrate in itself.
Chinese culture makes the ages of 50, 60, 70, 80, and so on in 10-year interval grand events of celebrating a senior person’s longevity.
These festivities are known as Zhu Shou (祝寿).
Those who are celebrating birthdays on ages below 50 were not allowed to use the words Zhu Shou to label their celebratory events as it was believed that it can shorten the person’s life.
Each of the 10-year birthday celebrations have strong customs and cultural association as well.
On a side note, most western nations consider the age of 65 as the year that an individual is categorized as a senior citizen.
The 50 year birthday is known as Tian Ming Zhi Nian (天命之年)
This conveys that meaning that at this age, a person would have had the will of heaven behind him or her to live to this age. And should therefore be wise not just on the things around him, but also from within.
At 60 years, the birthday is titled Hua Jia Zhi Nian (花甲之年)
This is a reference to the 60-year Jiazi sexagenary cycle which runs full circle every 60 years.
These 60 years also consist of 5 full cycles of the 12 zodiac signs. And people who have reached the age of 60 are often said to have lived through a whole generation.
This 60-year milestone is also termed as Er Shun Zhi Nian (耳顺之年) which means that one appreciates the ability to listen more than the ability to talk.
At the age of 70, the birthday is called Gu Xi Zhi Nian (古稀之年)
The terms originated from a verse in a poem written by a famous poet.
This is a representation that reaching 70 is truly against the odds and that one should show gratitude for living to this ripe old age.
The ages of 80 and 90 are known as Mao Die Zhi Nian (耄耋之年)
This term is extracted from the Book of Rites and is essentially a reference to a person who is undeniably old.
The centurion age of 100 is called Qi Yi Zhi Nian (期颐之年)
It basically means a hundred year old person.
Birthday celebrations of people in these ages of 50 and onwards can often be very grand. This is especially so when we consider how deeply filial piety is embedded in Chinese culture.
So with each birthday of an elderly parent, the children would want to spend more money to show their filial character.
And at each later birthday, it only gets grander as a symbolic celebration of life and longevity.
There are no customary rituals or ceremonies that that the birthday person has to perform. These occasions are often a gathering of family, friends and relatives for a feast.
For those who are truly superstitious or live by the law of metaphysics, they might avoid celebrating birthdays on the 10 multiples such as 60 and 70. But instead celebrate a year earlier so that years end with number 9 such as 59 and 69.
This is because the number 9 is strongly associated with perceptual cycles and longevity. The Mandarin word for 9 (九) also sounds the same as the word that means forever (久).
On the other hand, the pronunciation of the word 10 (十) sounds the same as the word death (死).
Other than the years of celebration as previous mentioned, there are certain periods during the senior years where one’s life is believed to be vulnerable to being taken.
These are the ages of 54, 55, 63, 66, 72, 73, 81, and 84.
The beliefs surrounding these critical hazardous years concern entities who would arrive and determine whether it’s time to call time on a person’s life.
Therefore on these years, people would make offerings on birthdays to appease the higher power.