AUSPICIOUS TIMES FOR CHINESE WEDDINGS
Studio wedding photos Weddings are usually held in the spring and autumn. May and October are often the busiest months. Certain dates are regarded as inauspicious. The whole month of January, for example, is considered an unlucky month to get married in much of China because it falls before the Spring Festival, a time when the preparations are made to toss out the evil spirits associated with the previous year. The 5th, 14th and 23rd days of the lunar month are considered inauspicious days because of their links to unlucky numbers.
An auspicious date for a wedding is made after conferring with a fortuneteller who makes a decision based on shengcheng bazi—the year, month, day and time the bride and groom were born. Shengcheng bazi is also important in determining whether couples are compatible to begin with. Many engagementS have been broken off because something is amiss with the couple’s shengcheng bazi.
In Beijing, weddings have been traditionally held before the Spring Festival because people there believe the Kitchen God, who oversees domestic matters, leaves the earth and nothing is forbidden. In 2006 there were a number of wedding at that time of the year because of an unusual quirk in which the lunar calendar included two days that marked the beginning of lunar spring.
Dates with eights are viewed as especially auspicious for weddings because eights, like knots, represent a successful union.
Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Wedding Traditions hudsonvalleyweddings.com ; Wedding Customs chinabridal.com ; Wedding Customs houseonahill.net ; Wedding Traditions Chinese historical and cultural project ; Wedding Photos Beifan.com ; Wedding Customs chinese-poems.com ; Northern Shaanxi Wedding Customs China Vista ; Links in this Website: MARRIAGE, LOVE AND DATING IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONCUBINES AND DIVORCE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Preparations for Marriage in China
In the old days, before a marriage took place the families of the bride and groom had a couple of meetings. The first one determined if the families were compatible. The second one set the terms for the wedding ceremony and decided who paid for what.
In ancient times, engagements were sanctified by making offerings of things like candles, incense, wine, fruit at an altar as way of seeking approval of ancestors. Some offerings had special symbolic meanings: Pomegranate flowers represented prosperity and the birth of many sons; deer horn was regarded a aphrodisiacs. The groom's family often presented valuable teas to the bride's family.
Marriage contracts were written in characters and verse and considered binding, even if the nuptials were engaged as children. Broken engagements were punished with 60 strokes from a cane or whip.
In the Mao and Deng eras, couples needed permission from a local board to get married and a letter from an employer stating that they were single. A new set of laws that went into effect in October 2003, ended the need for the letter from an employer.
Today things a little more romantic, sort of. One young woman told the China Daily that she hoped her boyfriend would get on his knees and pull out a diamond ring as he asked her to marry him but said the reality was much different. When the time came he said: ‘My mother has asked us to register for the marriage certificate as soon as possible.’
Marriage Physical in China
Traditional clothes In the Mao and Deng eras, couples were not allowed to get married until they had a a physical. Among other things the examination made sure that the couple was capable of fulfilling the physical duties required of newly married people. Those that passed were given a health certificate which which they submitted when they got married. The new October 2003 marriage laws also ended the need for the physical.
The doctors who performed the physicals were supposed to be on the look out for “unmarriageable illnesses,” which were not defined but were thought to have including schizophrenia, cancer, mental retardation, muteness and genital deformity. The intent of the examination was to prevent marriages that could cause trouble between the couple or be a burden to the state. Although most Westerners find the idea of such an examination to be an egregious invasion of privacy, many Chinese viewed it as routine inconvenience.
One woman sued the doctor who conducted her physical after her fiancé broke off their engagement because the doctor determined that lines on her abdomen were stretch marks caused by a pregnancy. The woman insisted the lines were caused by weight loss and won a $900 judgment from the doctor but was unable to reconcile with her fiancé. In another case, a construction worker received a “too small” diagnosis from the doctor who conducted his physical. He got the opinion of six other doctors who rated him as “normal” and was able to get married but his wife left him three months later.
Civil Ceremony in China
Marriages officially take place at the Bureau of Civil Affairs office or some such place in a city hall or local government office. During the procedure the couple present their identification cards and some other documents, fill out some forms and answer a few routine questions. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.
Article 7 of the Marriage Law of the People's Republic of China (1986) states: "Both the man and the woman desiring to contract a marriage shall register in person with the marriage registration office." The Chinese equivalent to "Will you marry me?" is "Shall we register?"
The climax of the civil ceremony is often when the couple signs the registry and has their wedding pictures taken, holding up their identification cards, in front of a wall of velvet roses with an emblem for the Chinese government positioned prominently at the top.
Many couples get married in their street clothes. Others don a wedding dress and tuxedo or traditional Chinese wedding clothes. Some offices even have wedding clothes that the couple can rent. The Dongchang office in Beijing has an in-house stylist. Wigs, wine, silly string, confetti and candy are available if needed.
Traditional Chinese Weddings
Wedding in the 1890s In the old days, traditional Chinese weddings were performed at ancestral shrines. In upper class families the groom and bride wore red and green silk garments and were transported to the shrine in wedding sedans decorated with birds and flowers. The red worn by the bride and groom symbolized good fortune. If they had them, families exchanged genealogical records.
In a traditional wedding cermony today, the bride often has a veil over her head and wears a red gown and jewelry given to here by her parents. She carries a red umbrella. When opened, it is said, the umbrella delivers her descendants to the home of the groom.
Sometimes a special tea ceremony is conducted in which the couple is formally introduced as husband and wife to their families and ancestors. The bride serves tea to each guest and is a given a red envelope containing money in return. The new husband offers tea (sometimes dragon's eye fruit tea) and bows to each parent. While their parents sip their tea they give red envelopes with money or jewelry to the husband.
Weddings in Buddhist areas have traditionally been secular affairs not endorsed by the Buddhist clergy. But in some places people feel that their marriage needs a religious endorsement. In many cases this involves monks and nuns chanting sutras after the civil ceremony is completed.
During a Buddhist wedding, the couple promises to love, respect and be faithful to one another. Often the groom promises to provide gifts and take care of his wife while the bride promises to be hospitable to the family and friends of the groom. When the ceremony is presided over by a monk the couple promises to uphold the teachings of the Buddha. The ceremonies are often held in gardens because they are regarded as pure and uncorrupted by the sufferings of humans.
Wedding Procession and Banquet in China
Wedding procession As part of a traditional wedding, the groom sends a red carriage or sedan chair to the bride’s house to pick up the bride and take her to the home of the groom’s family. If the bride’s family is rich she is carried to the home of the groom’s family accompanied by servants and a band with flutes and gongs. The bride is forbidden from touching the ground with her feet until she arrives at the groom’s house.
In modern variation of this ritual the groom hires a taxi and goes to the bride's house to pick her up and take her to his family's house or a local shrine for the wedding. When the couple arrives firecrackers are lit.
Many weddings feature a caravan of cars trailing pink ribbons and paper flowers. The groom and his friends usually drive in these cars to the bride’s house. When the groom arrives, the bridesmaids ask the groom tricky questions and make outrageous requests. The groom’s friends help him pass the test and are finally led into the bride’s house after presetting the bridesmaid’s gifts wrapped in red paper. Inside the house the bride and groom serve tea to the bride’s parents and relatives, who turn give red packages, often with jewelry, to the bride.
At the groom’s house the bride and groom serve tea to the groom’s parents and relatives who in turn give the bride and groom red packages with mney or jewelry. It is customary for groom’s mother to give a gold band or jade to welcome the bride into the family. An hour or so after the bride arrives, around noon, guests arrive for a banquet at the family house of the groom or at a wedding hall. Everyone drinks wine and eats food prepared by the groom's family until about eleven at night.
The purpose of a banquet is for parents of the bride and groom to thank their guests for honoring their childrens’ marriage. The meal often has 12 courses, including lobster, roast pig, fried rice, noodles and shark fin soup, plus dessert and fresh fruit. While the food is served music is played and a master of ceremonies leads everyone in a series of toasts. Guests often try to trick the groom into publicaly displaying his affection for the bride. A scene from an Ang Lee movie set in Taiwan showed a wedding game in which the bride is kissed on the cheek by a series of men kiss and she has to pick the one who is her husband.
Chinese Wedding Customs
At Chinese wedding parties the newlywed couple doesn't do a first dance, rather they often sing a karaoke duet followed by other guests coming up to the microphone and singing songs.
In Hong Kong and some other places, for good luck the bride has her hair brushed four times while sitting in front of a moonlit window. The first brush represents lasting good qualities; the second, harmonious relationship through old age; the third; children and grandchildren; and forth, prosperity and a lengthy marriage.
Fireworks are often set off at weddings.
De Beers has very successfully implemented a marketing strategy in China dubbed “Creating a Diamond Wedding Cultural Imperative” that links diamonds with romance and security. When De Beers first entered China in 1993 the Chinese cared little for diamonds and generally did not link them with romance and marriage. By 2000, between 40 percent of all brides in Beijing and Shanghai received a diamond wedding. By 2005 the figure was between 70 and 80 percent.
Chinese Swarm to Marry on Lucky 11/11/11
AFP reported in November 2011, Chinese couples flocked to registry offices to marry on Friday in the belief that the '11/11/11' date is the most auspicious in a century.Nov 11 has been celebrated as an unofficial 'singles' day' in China since the 1990s - as the date is composed of the number one - and it is seen as a good day to marry and leave the single life behind. [Source: AFP, November 12, 2011]
But this year is viewed as particularly special because the year also ends in the number 11. More than 200 couples packed into a marriage registration office in downtown Shanghai on Friday morning, some having queued for hours before its doors opened to ensure they were among the first to marry.
Communist Wedding Ceremonies
Mao era weddings were generally spartan and bureaucratic. The bride and groom did not exchange vows or rings; they performed the civil ceremony in a government office, where they were given a lecture and declared married, and that was often it. Perhaps at a reception afterwards the wedding the bride served tea to some guests and received gifts of money in return.
See Civil Ceremony Above
In the Maoist era, elaborate weddings with frilly wedding gowns, tuxedos and lavish banquets were condemned as selfish and bourgeois. Wedding photos looked more like high school photographs or even mug shots than reminders of the happiest day of one’s life.
One man who was married during the Cultural Revolution in 1973 told the Los Angeles Times he was discouraged from even telling his closest relatives and friends about his marriage. "The neighborhood committee would come to ask us what kind of marriage we would have. If they thought it was too luxurious, they would educate us to make it simple. One of my best friends gave me 40 renminbi [about $5]. That was all her salary for one month."
After the Deng reforms, wedding became happier occasions. Families that could afford it dressed the bride in a Western-style white wedding dress with a long train.
Modern Weddings in China
Wedding toasts Economic prosperity and the decline of Communist asceticism has brought about an increase in lavish weddings. Businesses cashing in on the profitable marriage industry include photo studios, limousine services, banquet halls and furniture stores. Some party officials have even cashed in by renting their fancy imported cars to wedding parties.
In a typical modern wedding, a couple rents pink and green Western-style wedding gowns and suits from a photographic studio and goes to the government office to sign the papers and listen to the lecture. The bride often carries a red umbrella and a bouquet of red roses.
Afterwards there is lavish banquet at a fancy restaurant with 12 courses, often including spicy chicken, seafood, suckling pig and long noodles symbolizing long life. The walls are decorated with cardboard cutouts of the Chinese symbols for “double happiness.” Everyone eats and drinks and has a good time. Toasts and speeches are made. There is usually little in the way of formal entertainment other than karaoke singing. Middle class couples typically spend between $250 and $2,500 for the wedding and banquet.
Newlyweds sometimes have several weddings. Ross Terrill wrote in National Geographic that he met a couple that had four different marriages celebrations. The first was a party with university friends (the guest of honor was the classmate who introduced the couple). The groom's parents were divorced and this meant that the couple had to get married in front of each parent separately. The bride's parents, who had not been invited to any of the other three events, insisted the couple couldn't have sex until they were married in the bride's hometown, with her family present.
Gardenside weddings and weddings beside rivers, lakes and the sea have become become popular in recent years. Wacky wedding also occur. After one couple got married in scuba gear in fish tank filled with sharks the aquarium that hosted the wedding received so many inquiries it now offers fixed wedding packages. Poor families have small wedding ceremonies and offer sweets, cigarettes and cheap locally-made liquor to their guests.
Hotel Weddings in China
Wedding banquet Wealthy families have their wedding banquets at Western-style hotels with free flowing champagne. It is not unusual for the bride to go through four or five dress changes, beginning with a Western-style wedding dress and then chaning into a Chinese qipao and then a Western-style evening gown.
A wedding at a nice hotel, including lunch for 150, costs around $4,000. The Purple House Wedding Celebration Co. in Beijing markets wedding packages for $5000 with music, decorations and a videotape of the ceremony. A lavish weddings featuring an escort by S-class Mercedes, flowers, gifts, a multi-course banquet for 300 in the best seafood restaurant in town and a photo shoot in front of a replica of the Eiffel Tower costs around $12,000.
Japanese wedding companies have set up shop in Shanghai and other places. They offer package deals for Japanese hotel-style weddings with a decorated aisle for the bride to walk down, dress changes during the reception, an exchange of rings, the lighting of candles at guests’s tables during the meal and a presentation of flowers by the newlywed couple to their parents.
Weddings and Photos in China
Most weddings feature a photo shoot in which the couple, dressed in their wedding clothes, pose at well-known monuments or in a local park. In large cities during the peak wedding season it is not unusual for couples to be lined up at particular landmarks waiting their turn to have their photograph taken. The sessions often take all day. In the morning, the couple is dressed up and made up and their hair is styled. In the afternoon they are driven around, often in a fancy car, to where the photographs are taken.
Many photography studios have sets and a variety of costumes. The Paris Marriage Plaza in Beijing makes huge profits photographing young grooms in tuxedos and young brides in Gone with Wind outfits, sexy evening gowns or traditional silk brocade dresses in front of "library" or "Garden of Eden" sets.
A wedding shoot by the Miracle Love Marriage photography studio in Beijing cost between $375 and $750 and last nine hours, with five costume changes and pictures in front of the Roman Catholic church, several well known landmarks and parks, plus studio pictures with the couple in angel wings in front of a French salon, a jungle or a Roman monument. For an extra fee teeth can be digitally brightened. [Source: Washington Post]
Many of the wedding studios are owned by Taiwanese. The owner of the Paris Marriage Plaza, a former fighter pilot from Taiwan, told the Los Angeles Times that an average of 1,000 couples, paying between $200 and $800 for each photo session, come to his studio every month.
Brook Larmer, New York Times, ‘In the poster-size wedding photographs that cover the walls of their home in rural Sichuan Province, the couple frolic in a field of green clover. They nuzzle against a backdrop of autumn leaves. They cuddle on a beach under an azure sky. In each soft-focus image, the bride — a 25-year-old former clothing vendor named Xue Ying — appears in a strapless white gown and a glittering tiara. The groom — Yang Chun, a 37-year-old shuttle-bus driver — wears a white tux and a bow tie; his crooked, nicotine-stained teeth appear straight and white.’ [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]
“The image set against the fall foliage is captioned Romandic Story, in garbled English. On the tropical beach, Xue leans back into Yang’s arms, her veil blowing in a breeze; a smile sparkles on Yang’s face. The caption, again in English, a language neither understands: I Make a Wish With U.” [Ibid]
“Yang and Xue invited me into their home one afternoon last fall. They married in July and were pleased to show off the trappings of connubial bliss. The dreamscapes were an artifice, a confection of false memories manufactured by a local photo studio. Digital enhancement brightened their smiles, erased their blemishes and slathered their marriage in a gooey layer of romanticism. It hardly seemed to matter that Yang and Xue lived in the mountains of landlocked Sichuan Province in southwestern China and had never been to a beach.” [Ibid]
Some elderly couples that were married in cold Communist ceremonies and had their wedding pictures taken wearing drab Mao jackets are turning up at the wedding studios in large numbers to have their pictures taken in cheerful Western-style wedding outfits.
Chinese Love Music Videos
Youth Image Studio is a professional studio in Shanghai that specializes in recording personal love stories, dubbed "love Mvs"—basically a short music video on how the couple met and fell in love, such videos are becoming popular in some metropolises. The studio offers tailormade MVs, with the screenplay based on the couple's romance, for 8,800 yuan ($1,320). This price entitles the newlyweds to 10 sets of DVDs packaged exactly like an original movie DVD, complete with poster and still pictures. [Source: Xu Lin, China Daily, October 10, 2010]
Making a "love MV" follows much the same path as a full-length feature film. Yang first gets to know the couple and their romantic history, and then comes up with a screenplay with inputs from his freelancers such as Dong Liqian. "Most want to recount their campus romances. But I have just written a screenplay about love in this life and a past one," Dong says. [Ibid]
Youth Image Studio is owned by Yang Dan. Yang's customers are all newlyweds belonging to the post-80s generation, who are open to new ideas. They want the video both to show at their wedding banquet and to keep as a memento of their youth. Like many others, Ni Bin and Hu Qi were instantly attracted to the idea of a "love MV" when first introduced to it at a wedding expo in Shanghai. "We wanted a record of our 11-year romance," Ni says. Their MV shows how they met in high school, separated after being forbidden to be together by a teacher, and eventually reunited. Ni wrote the screenplay himself, in accordance with Yang's advice. [Ibid]
The couple waited until August, when the weather is perfect for outdoor shooting. Choosing a weekend when students are off school, the couple, both 27, gathered several old classmates for bit parts in the MV. To give the video an authentic look, Ni even bought school uniform-style white shirts and black ties for everyone. Even his high school teacher, who was responsible for separating them in school, agreed to play himself for the video.The MV shows how they walked to class and took bike rides together. So touched were some of their classmates that they burst into tears after watching it. "Wedding photos all look the same. I wanted to try something new," Ni says. [Ibid]
Dowries, Bride Prices and Wedding Expenses in China
wedding cards Most traditional marriages involve the paying of a bride price (money paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family or to the bride). These days a bride price is paid in cash or presents and can total several thousand dollars.
In many cases the groom's family is expected to provide newlyweds with a new house and bridal purse filled with gold jewelry. This custom began in the 1980s, ironically, not long after the government passed laws prohibiting the giving of gifts in connection with marriage.
Before a man from the countryside can get married he needs at least $5,000 for a house, furniture, and tractor. Many young rural men migrate to the cities to find jobs so they can make enough money to get married.
Wedding expenses are usually shared by the groom and the bride's family or are paid by the groom's family. The groom and bride are expected to save their wages for their future. In Hong Kong the groom's family sends presents to the family of the bride and the groom provides a monetary gift to the bride’s family that may cover the cost of the wedding and pay for a certain number of tables at the wedding reception. Sometimes the bride's family provides a monetary gift for the cost of the banquet.
Wedding Presents in China
wedding hat The happiest moment of one’s wedding day it is said is not when the couple make their vow or share their first kiss as husband and wife or even have sex but rather is when they finally retire to their wedding chambers and count all the money they receive as gifts.
Wedding guests are expected to give hongbao (red packets of money) as gifts not presents as is the custom in the West, with the amounts of money given ranging from 200 yuan ($26) to several thousand yuan depending the closeness of the guest to the bride or groom. A cousin to the bride or groom typically gives 2,880 yuan (about $400), which is a month’s salary for a middle class resident of Beijing.
Some Chinese dread getting wedding invitations because of the amount of money involved. The wedding dinner is often not what the guests expect because the bride and groom try to invite as many guests as possible to get as much gift money as possible but then don’t provide enough food for all the guests.
Newlywed couples are often given a house full of furniture for a wedding gift. A modest gift with "36 legs" includes a bed, sofa, armories, chairs while one with "72 legs" also contains a television, washing machine, refrigerator and microwave oven. Some lucky couples even get a house or an apartment. Friends and relatives that can not provide furniture or appliances are expected to give envelopes containing the equivalent of $30 or $40. Traditionally the groom and his family was expected to provide a place to live while the woman’s family provided furniture and kitchenware.
In the Mao era, newlyweds received presents like thermoses and towels. A woman married in 1982 told the Los Angles Times she received pillows, a dress and a spittoon as wedding gifts. "But what I wanted to get was quilts," she said, "because in 1982, the more quilts you had, the more limelight you got." Silk quilts are traditional gifts given to the bride.
These days couples often expect more. Describing her wedding plans, one young single woman told the Los Angles Times, "I will make a list of everything I need, such as cosmetics and a hair dryer, and ask my close friends to buy them for me. I hope other people will give me money. I like to travel abroad. A honeymoon in Hong Kong or even Australia would be nice."
Wedding Night and Honeymoons in China
When the couple finally retires to their bedroom on their wedding night they often find red sheets on the bed and a young boy laying on the covers. The boy, usually around six- or seven-years-old, often stays with the couple all night in an attempt to help the couple produce a son.
Most couples can't afford a honeymoon. Usually the groom gets a few days off from work and the newlyweds stay at the home of the groom's parents. The couple usually gets the best room in the house, which unfortunately also happens to be the television room. This means that the couple has share their love nest with other members of the family when their favorite program is on. Couples that do get the opportunity to go on a honeymoon often make love for the first time in a train compartment shared with three or four strangers.
Some newlyweds in Shanghai cruise around in new car with life-size Micky and Minnie Mouse sitting in the backseat.
Ghost Marriage in China
Wedding night bed In Chinese tradition, a ghost marriage (in Chinese "spirit marriage") is a marriage in which one or both parties are deceased. Chinese ghost marriage was usually set up by the family of the deceased and performed for a number of reasons, including: the marriage of a couple previously engaged before one member’s death, to integrate an unmarried daughter into a patrilineage, to ensure the family line is continued, or to maintain that no younger brother is married before an elder brother. Other forms of ghost marriage are practiced worldwide, from Sudan, to India, to France since 1959. The origins of Chinese ghost marriage are largely unknown, and reports of it being practiced today can still be found.[Source: Wikipedia]
Ghost marriages are often set up by request of the spirit of the deceased, who, upon "finding itself without a spouse in the other world," causes misfortune for its natal family, the family of its betrothed, or for the family of the deceased’s married sisters. "This usually takes the form of sickness by one or more family members. When the sickness is not cured by ordinary means, the family turns to divination and learns of the plight of the ghost through a séance."
More benignly, a spirit may appear to a family member in a dream and request a spouse. Marjorie Topley, in "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese: A Further Note," relates the story of one fourteen-year old Cantonese boy who died. A month later he appeared to his mother in a dream saying that he wished to marry a girl who had recently died in Ipoh, Perak. The son did not reveal her name, but his mother used a Cantonese female spirit medium and "through her the boy gave the name of the girl together with her place of birth and age, and details of her horoscope which were subsequently found to be compatible with his."
Because Chinese custom dictates that younger brothers should not marry before their elder brothers, a ghost marriage for an older, deceased brother may be arranged just prior to a younger brother’s wedding to avoid "incurring the disfavour of his brother’s ghost." Additionally, in the days of immigration, ghost marriages were used as a means to "cement a bond of friendship between two families." However, there have been no recent cases reported.
Ghost Marriage of a Woman in China
According to the ghost marriage custom upon the death of her fiancé, a bride could choose to go through with the wedding, in which the groom was represented by a white cockerel at the ceremony. However, some girls were hesitant since this form of ghost marriage required her to participate in the funeral ritual, mourning customs (including strict dress and conduct standards), take a vow of celibacy, and immediately take up residence with his family. A groom also had the option of marrying his late fiancée, with no disadvantages, but there have been no records of such weddings. [Source: Wikipedia]
When it comes to death customs, an unmarried Chinese woman has no descendants to worship her or care for her as part of a lineage. In every household, an altar is prominently displayed with the spirit tablets of the paternal ancestors and the images of the gods. A married woman’s tablet is kept at the altar of her husband’s family, however, should a woman of eligible age pass away unmarried, her family is prohibited from placing her tablet on the altar of her natal home. Instead, she will be "given a temporary paper tablet, placed not on the domestic altar but in a corner near the door." Hence, the important duty of Chinese parents in marrying off their children becomes increasingly important for their daughters. Since women are only able to acquire membership in descent lines through marriage, ghost marriage became a viable solution to ensure that unmarried, deceased daughters still had "affiliation to a male descent line" and could be appropriately cared for after death. Another death custom concerning an unmarried daughter prohibited her from dying in her natal home. Instead, a temple or "Death House. for spinsters was, or families take their daughter to a shed, empty house, or outlying buildings to die.
Not only did the Chinese customs concerning death greatly burden the family, but an unmarried daughter became a source of great embarrassment and concern. In Charlotte Ikels "Parental Perspectives on the Significance of Marriage" she reports, "Traditionally, girls who did not marry were regarded as a threat to the entire family and were not allowed to continue living at home. Even in contemporary Hong Kong, I was told that unmarried women are assumed to have psychological problems. Presumably no normal person would remain unmarried voluntarily". For girls that did in fact choose to remain unmarried, "bride-initiated spirit marriage" (or a ghost marriage initiated by a living bride) was a successful "marriage-resistance practice" that allowed them to remain single while still being integrated into a lineage. However, it did come with some negative connotations, being called a "fake spirit-marriage", or referred to as "marrying a spirit tablet", and a way to avoid marriage.
Ghost Marriage of a Man in China
Luo Ping ghost painting If a son died before marriage, his parents arranged a ghost marriage in order to provide him with progeny to continue the lineage and give him his own descendants. "A man in China does not marry so much for his own benefit as for that of the family: to continue the family name; to provide descendants to keep up the ancestral worship; and to give a daughter-in-law to his mother to wait on her and be, in general, a daughter to her". Occasionally a live girl is taken as a wife for a dead man but this is rare. The ceremony itself took on characteristics of both a marriage and a funeral, with the spirit of the deceased bride being ‘led’ by a medium or priest, while her body is transferred from her grave to be laid next to her husband. [Source: Wikipedia]
If the family was "suitably rich to tempt a [living] girl," the ghost marriage might also profit them with the asset of having a daughter-in-law. Since a daughter is not considered "a potential contributor to the lineage into which she is born," but rather "it is expected that she will give the children she bears and her adult labor to the family of her husband", the wife of a deceased son would benefit her husband’s family by becoming a caregiver in their home.
Once the deceased son had a wife, the family could adopt an heir, or a "grandson"to continue on the family line. The purpose of the daughter-in-law was not to produce offspring, as she was to live a chaste life, but she became the "social instrument" to enable the family to adopt. The family preferred to adopt patrilineally-related male kin, usually through a brother assigning one of his own sons to the lineage of the deceased. The adoption was carried out by writing up a contract, which was then placed under the dead man’s tablet. As an adopted son, his duties were to make ancestral offerings on his birth and death dates, and he was additionally "entitled to inherit his foster father’s share of the family estate."
Arranging a Ghost Marriage, Doweries and Bridewealth
If a family wishes to arrange a ghost marriage, they may consult with a matchmaker of sorts: In a Cantonese area of Singapore "there is in fact a ghost marriage broker’s sign hung up in a doorway of a Taoist priest’s home. The broker announces that he is willing to undertake the search for a family which has a suitable deceased member with a favourable horoscope." Others do not use the aid of any priest or diviner, but believe that the groom the ghost-bride has chosen "[will] somehow identify himself."Typically, the family lays a red envelope (usually used for gifts of money) as bait in the middle of the road. They then take hiding, and when the envelope is picked up by a passer-by, they come out and announce his status of being the chosen bridegroom. [Source: Wikipedia]
The exchange of bridewealth and dowries between the two families involved in a ghost marriage is quite "variable," and families may exchange both, one or the other, or even just red money packets. There is no standard amount exchanged, but several of Janice Stockard’s informants reported that the groom’s family provided the bride with a house. In another reported ghost-marriage, the groom’s family sent wedding cakes and NT $120 to the brides family, who returned it with a dowry of a gold ring, gold necklace, several pairs of shoes, and six dresses "all fitted for the use of the groom’s living wife."
Ghost Marriage Ceremony in China
In a ghost-marriage, many of the typical marriage rites are observed. However, since one or more parties is predeceased, they are otherwise represented, most often by effigies made of paper, bamboo, or cloth.
For instance, a ghost-couple at their marriage feast, the bride and groom may be constructed of paper bodies over a bamboo frame with a papier-mâché head. On either side of them stands their respective paper servants, and the room contains many other paper effigies of products they would use in their home, such as a dressing table (complete with a mirror), a table and six stools, a money safe, a refrigerator, and trunks of paper clothes and cloth. After the marriage ceremony is complete, all of the paper belongings are burned to be sent to the spirit world to be used by the couple.
In another ceremony that married a living groom to a ghost bride, the effigy was similar, but instead constructed with a wooden backbone, arms made from newspaper, and the head of "a smiling young girl clipped from a wall calendar." Similarly, after the marriage festivities, the dummy is burned. In both cases, the effigies wore real clothing, similar to that which is typically used in marriage ceremonies. This includes a pair of trousers, a white skirt, a red dress, with a lace outer dress. Additionally, they were adorned with jewelry; though similar in fashion to that of a typical bride’s, it was not made of real gold. If a living groom is marrying a ghost-bride, he will wear black gloves instead of the typical white. Most of the marriage ceremony and rites are performed true to Chinese custom. In fact, "the bride was always treated as though she was alive and participating in the proceedings" from being fed at the wedding feast in the morning, to being invited in and out of the cab, to being told of her arrival at the groom’s house. One observable difference in a ghost marriage is that the ancestral tablet of the deceased is placed inside the effigy, so that "the bride’s dummy [is] animated with the ghost that [is] to be married," and then placed with the groom’s family’s tablets at the end of the marriage festivities.
Ghost Wedding Revival Fuels China Body Trade
Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, “A gang in northern China has been caught trying to re-sell and re-marry a girl who had been sold and married a few days earlier, despite being dead on both occasions. The lack of pulse, however, was not something that troubled the girl's first husband or groom-in-waiting, who were also both dead and, according to superstition, in need of a spouse with whom to share the afterlife. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, February 24, 2012]
The arrests in Hebei province have shone a light on the country's revival of the tradition of "ghost marriages" for men who die young and unwed. Chairman Mao Zedong tried to stamp out the practice after the communists took power in 1949. Yet, in 2012, experts say, the strength of the corpse bride market has generated a complex web of players - from cadaver brokers and matchmakers for the dead to bent morticians and grave-robbers.
The trade has also evolved its own mix of price-fixing, inflation and corruption. A few years ago, a dead but reasonably fresh bride commanded about 14,000 yuan ($2200); now a body can fetch more than twice that. The increasing sums of money involved have even prompted some to commit serial murder. One man, Song Tiantang, explained after his arrest in 2007 for strangling and selling six women that "killing people and selling their bodies is less work than stealing them from graves".
Ghost weddings are most common in northern provinces with coalmining industries, where many women have migrated and left bachelors working in dangerous jobs. The latest incident in Hebei province began earlier this month when a family, surnamed Wu, sold their recently deceased daughter for 35,000 yuan to a man, Mr Liu, who saw her as the perfect match for his recently deceased brother. A spirit wedding was conducted and the two were buried together.
Mr Liu later found that his brother's grave had been raided and his inanimate sister-in-law had vanished - a disappearance that police discovered was a planned elopement with a corpse groom from another town. The gang of five was caught attempting to sell the girl for 30,000 yuan, the discount reflecting several days of mild putrefaction since her previous nuptials.
Image Sources: Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/except 1890s phot0, University of Washington, wedding procession, Xinhua, and studio and park photos, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2012