Teaching Module

Ancient China

The Book of Rites, The Birth of a Child [Literary Excerpt]


The "Patterns of the Family," is drawn from The Book of Rites, a text that defined Confucian rituals of all kinds. It is important to note that Confucianism was not an organized religion, but viewed the family as the main locus of worship and the head of each family was, in essence, the "priest" or person in charge of religious observances. The rites described in this text tend to focus on the aristocratic elite. It is not known the extent to which the rituals described in this text represent an idealized form of ceremony and the degree to which these rites were actually practiced.

The text emphasizes a strict hierarchy of gender and class, based on the underlying belief that social order prevails when all people understand their positions in life. To a certain extent, social status was relative, so that a woman might be regarded as her husband's inferior, but was considered a superior to her husband's concubines. Likewise, an adult son (often, even in the case of an emperor) was expected to obey his mother.

According to this text, the newborn child was incorporated into the family in gradual stages. First, the pregnant mother was confined to a side apartment. Three days after the birth, divinations were made to choose a man (not the father) to lift up the child outside the birth chamber. Next, in an exorcistic rite, the master of archery was to shoot six raspberry-wood arrows with a mulberry bow: one toward Heaven, one toward earth, and the others toward the four cardinal directions. At the end of the child's third month, the child's hair was cut in gender-specific ways. At this time, the father finally received the child, but only after he and the mother had purified themselves by bathing.

The isolation of the new mother and child indicates a belief that contact with the birth process was inauspicious or defiling. It is also possible that the haircut administered before its first presentation to its father was linked to a practice mentioned in later medical texts, in which the infant's polluted "fetal hair" must be shaved off before its presentation to the family. The Book of Rites is concerned with the ceremonies that mark the child's gradually developing relationship with its father and the outside world. This work, like other transmitted texts, has little to say about rituals concerned with the actual process of childbirth.


"The Pattern of the Family." Chap. 10 in Liji (Book of Rites). Translation based on James Legge, Li chi: Book of Rites. Quoted in Muller, Max, ed. The Sacred Books of the East. Vols. XXVII and XXVIII. Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1885. Reprint, New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1967. Vol. 1, 471-76. Annotated by Anne Kinney.

Primary Source Text

The Birth of a Child

When a wife was about to have a child, and the month of her confinement had arrived, she occupied one of the side apartments, where her husband sent twice a day to ask for her. If he so desired, and came himself to ask about her, she did not presume to see him, but made her governess dress herself and reply to him. When the child was born, the husband again sent twice a day to inquire for her. He fasted now, and did not enter the door of the side apartment. If the child were a boy, a bow was placed on the left of the door; and if a girl, a handkerchief on the right of it. After three days the child began to be carried, and some archery was practiced for a boy, but not for a girl.

When a son and heir to the ruler of a state was born, and information of the fact was carried to him, he made arrangements to receive him at a feast where the three animals should all be provided; and the cook took in hand the necessary preparations. On the third day the tortoise-shell was consulted for a good man to carry the child; and he who was the lucky choice, kept a vigil over night, and then in his court robes, received him in his arms outside the chamber. The master of the archers then took a bow of mulberry wood, and six arrows of the wild rubus, and shot towards heaven, earth, and the four cardinal points. After this the nurse received the child and carried it in her arms. The cook at the same time gave a cup of sweet wine to the man who had carried the child, and presented him with a bundle of silks, and the tortoise-shell was again employed to determine the wife of an officer, or the concubine of a Great officer, who should be nurse.

In all cases of receiving a son, a day was chosen; and if it were the eldest son of the king, the three sacrificial animals were killed for the occasion. For the son of a common man, a sucking-pig was killed; for the son of an officer, a single pig; for the son of a Great officer, the two smaller animals; and for the son of the ruler of a state, all the three. If it were not the eldest son, the provision was diminished in every case one degree.

A special apartment was prepared in the palace for the child, and from all the concubines and other likely individuals there was sought one distinguished for her generosity of mind, her gentle kindness, her mild integrity, her respectful bearing, her carefulness and freedom from talkativeness, who should be appointed the boy's teacher; one was next chosen who should be his indulgent mother, and a third who should be his guardian mother. These all lived in his apartment, which others did not enter unless on some special business.

At the end of the third month a day was chosen for shaving off the hair of the child, excepting certain portions,–the horn-like tufts of a boy, and the circlet on the crown of a girl. If another fashion were adopted, a portion was left on the left of the boy's head, and on the right of the girl's. On that day the wife with the son appeared before the father. If they were of noble families, they were both in full dress. From the commissioned officer downwards, all rinsed their mouths and washed their heads. Husband and wife rose early, bathed and dressed as for the feast of the first day of the month. The husband entered the door, going up by the steps on the east, and stood at the top of them with his face to the west. The wife with the boy in her arms came forth from her room and stood beneath the lintel with her face to the east.

The governess then went forward and said for the lady, 'The mother, So and So, ventures today reverently to present to you the child!' The husband replied, 'Reverently teach him to follow the right way.' He then took hold of the right hand of his son, and named him with the smile and voice of a child. The wife responded, 'We will remember. May your words be fulfilled!' She then turned to the left, and delivered the child to his teacher, who on her part told the name all round to the wives of the relatives of all ranks who were present. The wife forthwith proceeded to the festal chamber.

The husband informed his principal officer of the name, and he in turn informed all the young males of the same surname of it. A record was made to the effect--'In such a year, in such a month, on such a day, So and So was born,' and deposited. The officer also informed the secretaries of the hamlets, who made out two copies of it. One of these was deposited in the office of the village, and the other was presented to the secretary of the larger circuit, who showed it to the chief of the circuit; he again ordered it to be deposited in the office of the circuit. The husband meanwhile had gone into the festal chamber, and a feast was celebrated with the ceremonies of that with which a wife first entertains her parents-in-law.

When an heir-son has been born, the ruler washed his head and whole body, and put on his court robes. His wife did the same, and then they both took their station at the top of the stairs on the east with their faces towards the west. One of the ladies of quality, with the child in her arms, ascended by the steps on the west. The ruler then named the child; and the lady went down with it.

A second son or any other son by the wife proper was presented in the outer chamber, when the ruler laid his hand on its head, and with gentle voice named it. The other observances were as before, but without any words.

In naming a son, the name should not be that of a day or a month or of any state, or of any hidden ailment. Sons of Great and other officers must not be called by the same name as the heir-son of the ruler.

When a concubine was about to have a child, and the month of her confinement had arrived, the husband sent once a day to ask for her. When the son was born, at the end of three months, she washed her mouth and feet, adjusted herself early in the morning and appeared in the inner chamber belonging to the wife proper. There she was received with the ceremonies of her first entrance into the harem. When the husband had eaten, a special portion of what was left was given to her by herself; and forthwith she entered on her duties of attendance.

When the child of an inferior member of the ruler's harem was about to be born, the mother went to one of the side apartments, and at the end of three months, having washed her head and person, and put on her court robes, she appeared before the ruler. One of her waiting women also appeared with the child in her arms. If the mother was one to whom the ruler had given special favors, he himself named the son. In the case of such children generally, an officer was employed to name them.

Among the common people who had no side chambers, when the month of confinement was come, the husband left his bed-chamber, and occupied a common apartment. In his inquiries for his wife, however, and on his son's being presented to him, there was no difference from the observances that have been detailed.

In all cases though the father is alive, the grandson is presented to the grandfather, who also names him. The ceremonies are the same as when the son is presented to the father; but there is no interchange of words between the mother and him.

The nurse of the ruler's boy quitted the palace after three years, and, when she appeared before the ruler, was rewarded for her toilsome work. The son of a Great officer had a nurse. The wife of an ordinary officer nourished her child herself.

The son of a commissioned officer and others above him on to the Great officer was presented to the father once in ten days. The eldest son of a ruler was presented to him before he had eaten, when he took him by the right hand; his second or any other son by the wife proper was presented after he had eaten, when he laid his hand on his head.

How to Cite This Source

Anne Kinney, "Ancient China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #187, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/187 (accessed August 10, 2021).