TIBETAN MARRIAGE, WEDDINGS, CHILDREN AND FAMILIES

TIBETAN MARRIAGE

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Bride and groom exchange barley drinks
Marriages have traditionally been arranged with parents of the groom seeking a bride from the same social position. It was generally considered taboo for a woman to reject the man selected for her. Among the upper classes, pedigree was important. The advise of fortunetellers was sought and parents negotiated through middlemen. Virginity was not regarded as important. Until the end of the 19th century, a suitor sometimes placed an arrow on a girl's back to show that she was his. For Buddhists, marriages are viewed as a non-religious activity. Buddhist theologians have never defined what a proper marriages between lay Buddhist entails. Property and family names have traditionally been handed down mother to daughter.

According to the Chinese government: “The Tibetan family is male-centered and marriage is a strictly inner-class affair. Marriage relationships vary from place to place. In some areas, cousins on the male line are forbidden to marry while cousins on the female line who are several times removed are allowed to marry each other. In other areas, cousins on the male line who are several times removed may marry each other, with no restrictions on intermarriages between relatives on the female line. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

“Monogamy is the principal form of marriage. There is no inhibition on social intercourse between young men and women before marriage. The husband controls and inherits the property of the family and the wife is subordinate to the husband, even if he is married into a woman's family. The proportion of polygamy is small. Marriages between serfs had to be approved by their manorial lords. When serfs on different manors got married, one party had to pay a certain amount of ransom to the manorial lord of the other party or the manorial lord of one party had to give a serf to the other lord as compensation. Without the permission of their manorial lords, the serfs could not get married all their lives. The commandments of the yellow sect Lama, which holds a predominant position in Lamaism, forbid the monks to marry. Monks belonging to the other sects are free to marry and the weddings are held at religious services in their lamaseries.” *|*

Divorce has traditionally been relatively simple and easy to obtain in Tibetan society. In the old days, it was common practice that if a couple divorced the father was awarded custody of the male children, while the mother got the girls. That practice has now been phased out. A wife could sometimes divorce her husband by giving him a sheep and showing him out the door.

Types of Marriage in Tibet

Monogamy, polyandry, polygyny and "marriage by capture” have all traditionally been common in Tibetan culture.Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “Unlike our own society, where monogamy is the only form of marriage permitted, Tibetan society allows a variety of marriage types, including monogamy, fraternal polyandry, and polygyny' Fraternal polyandry and monogamy are the most common forms of marriage, while polygyny typically occurs in cases where the first wife is barren. [Source: "When Brothers Share a Wife" by Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987]

Seven forms of marriage are recognized in Tibetan areas: 1) fraternal polyandry (a set of brothers marries one woman); 2) father-and-son polyandry; 3) unrelated male polyandry; 4) sororal polygyny (a set of sisters marries one man); 5) mother-and-daughter polygyny; 6) unrelated female polygyny; and 7) monogamy.

Polygamy in a lot of ways it makes sense in Tibet because so many men have traditionally been monks (up to a quarter of all Tibetan males). Polygamists were usually merchants or landowners---men that could afford to have more than one wife---or peasants who shared wives as a way of keeping the family estate intact.

See Nomadic Society

Dating and the Engagement Process in a Tibet

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wedding gifts
Girls in Tibet are initiated into adulthood with a special ceremony. An auspicious date is selected according to the Tibetan calendar. After the ceremony a girl’s hair is plaited from a single to many braids and she begins wearing a colorful 'apron', indicating her availability for marriage and male friendships. Public gatherings are considered appropriate occasions for boys to meet girls. Romantic bonfires in the moonlight draw boys and girls together to sing and to worship. After a period of courtship and permission to marry has been granted by each family, an elderly gentleman is asked to propose the marriage to the bride-to-be's parents. According to tradition, only the maternal uncle of the girl has the right to approve. Suitable gifts are presented to the bride's family once approval has been given. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Chloe Xin of Tibetravel.org wrote: “Proposal is the first step of marriage. Traditionally, if a man is interested in a lady, he seeks her age, date of birth and her zodiac attribute (i.e mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog or pig). With all the information in hand, he consults an astrologist to check if her attributes are compatible with his. If both zodiac matched, the fellow's family chooses an auspicious day and get a matchmaker to visit the girl's family for the formal proposal, with gifts such as khatag, yak butter tea, barley wine and other gifts. If her family agrees, they accept the gifts. Nowadays, freedom of choosing spouse is also prevalent in Tibet. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org <>]

“If both sides agree with the marriage, they choose another auspicious day to sign an engagement. The ceremony is held at the lady's house and should be participated by representatives of both families and the chief witnesses. On that particular day, the man's family has to send Khatag and other gifts to every member of the lady's family. Contents of the engagement are more about mutual respect and love, showing filial piety for elders, good morality or inheriting fortune in future, etc. After the witnesses check the duplicate betrothal contracts, they sign the contracts with the seals of the two families and pass them to both sides. Finally the lady's family holds a banquet to celebrate the occasion. At the end of the banquet, each guest is presented with Khatag upon leaving.” <>

Tibetan Weddings

Sometimes engagements and weddings take place on the same day. Other times the prenuptial banquet and wedding feast are two or three days apart. The prenuptial banquet usually begins with the bride and her family going to a temple for a lingka feast. Friends and relatives bring gifts such as wheat cakes, boiled rice mixed with butter, persimmons, and sugar and raisins. Guests enjoy dinner and dancing. In the evening, representatives of the groom’s family arrive and bring bridal clothing and breast money (a kind of dowry intended to compensate the bride’s family for money spent raising the bride).

The bride traditionally wears a nice traditional Tibetan dress, jewelry and a special jewel that hangs from her forehead. On her wedding day, the bride's parents give her a farewell dinner, in which a priest conducts a special ritual for the village and family gods and tells the bride how she is expected to behave as a married woman.

The bride leaves her family’s house with her face covered by a cloth. She remains that way until she arrives at her husband’s house (often his parents house). Sometimes a man with a sword is presents a the husband's house. He is there to keep evil spirits away.

After the bride arrives a second feast is held. A priest conducts another ritual. This time he informs the village and the family gods that a new person has entered the husband’s house and asks for their blessing. Everyone prays and gifts of silk are given to the couple and all the guests. After this is done the couple is considered husband and wife.

Tibetan Wedding Procession

Before the wedding, an auspicious day is chosen for the wedding ceremony by the groom's family. On the day before the wedding ceremony, the groom's side sends a suit of beautiful clothing and a hair ornament wrapped in silk to the bride. On wedding day, the groom's side finds a man with good status to take a group of people and colorful arrows decorated with mirrors, jades and jewels—along with a finely decorated horse representing of pregnancy, whose color match the bride's birth animal—to bride's house. The bride's side offer Qiema (a traditional Tibetan box) as a ritual of farewell before the groom's side arrives. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org <>]

A colorful arrow is plugged on the bride's back and a jade band is put upon her head to show bride now belongs to the bridegroom's side. A bride’s maid escorts the bride to the greeting party. When the bride leaves, someone in the bride's family holds a colorful arrow in one hand and a mutton leg in the other and, standing on a high place, shouts out "don't take away the fortune of the family" until the bride's greeting party is out of sight. <>

The convoy is usually led by the astrologist, who wears a white gown. He rides on a white horse and holds a picture of the Nine Courts and Eight Diagrams. Following behind are the welcoming group, the bride, accompanied by her bride’s maids, and finally members of the groom at the end. The whole team sings loudly all the way while the bride weeps due to her separation from her family. <>

On the way, the family members of bridegroom are waiting beside the road and toast to the greeting party for three times. If coming across patients carried, people who are dumping garbage or carrying empty basket, the greeting party deems it as bad omens. If so, monks should be invited to chant scriptures for removing ill fortune after wedding days. All greeting members are chanting Xie Qin in the proceed while bride is crying. <>

Tibetan Wedding Ceremony

The day before the wedding, the engaged are not allowed to see each other at all. During the day, monks pray for their marriage to dispel any bad luck. On the wedding day, a respected person chosen to lead the wedding repeats Tibetan rhymed congratulatory words for the new couple. Then, it is the time for guests to show their best wishes to both the bride and groom by offering khadas, or scarves. After this the couple’s parents and relatives toast with their guests. The evening ends with a toast made by the new couple. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Before the arrival of the bride at the groom’s house for the wedding ceremony, the groom has the gate decorated and a cushion of barleys laid in front of his house. The cushion is covered with a piece of colorful embroidered cloth, on the top of which are some kernels in the shape of the propitious swastika. His family members welcome the bride with chang and chemar (a propitious funneled box with barleys and Tsampas separately put inside and butter sculptures stuck onto). [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org <>]

Upon arrival at the groom's house, the bride has to tramp on the road with barleys and tea leaves, symbolizing the harvest she is bringing into the family. After accepting the Khatag presented by the groom, she enters the house. The bride and groom then sit together in the living room to receive good wishes, Khatag and other gifts from guests. Then the newly wed are sent to their room, where lamas recite sutras to bless them.

After a Tibetan Wedding Ceremony

After the wedding ceremony the family holds a banquet or party for the guests, often with singing and dancing. Traditionally, all the relatives, friends, old classmates and colleagues gathered at the new couple’s home and celebrate until that late night. The a joyful wedding feast features lots of toasting and speeches, liberally interrupted by many presentations of ceremonial scarves, blessings, and gifts — so many that sometimes the groom and bride are nearly buried beneath the large number of scarves tied around their necks! [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

During the party, people play funny games to tease the couple. For some rich families, the wedding ceremony in Tibet can last as long as thirty days, but generally it lasts two or three days. These days time is also set aside for wedding photos, often in a studio or in front of famous landmarks. Tibetan also want the marriage to embodied with a holy feeling and blessed by the gods. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org <>]

In Tibet, a new couple is not allowed to leave their home for three whole days—a test for both of them as to the strength of the marriage. If they persist, then Tibetans believe that their marriage will last forever. Usually 3 or 6 months after the marriage, the newly wed visit the bride's parents. The bride's family has to prepare barleys, swastika pictures and others to welcome them and exchange Khatag, yak butter tea, chemar and other gifts with each other. Only then is the whole wedding ceremony in Tibet considered completed.

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Wedding banquet

China Promotes Mixed Marriages to Bring Unity to Tibet

In August 2014, William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Now, China has turned to interracial marriage in an apparent attempt to assimilate Tibetans and stamp out rebellious impulses. Chinese officials in charge of the Tibetan Autonomous Region have ordered a run of stories in local newspapers promoting mixed marriages. And according to newly published government reports, the government has adopted a series of policies in recent years favorable to interracial couples. Urging officials to push mixed marriages harder, China’s highest official in the Tibetan region, Chen Quanguo, recently staged a photo op with 19 mixed families. “As the saying goes, ‘blood is thicker than water,’ we should make our ethnic relationship like that,” Chen said at the meeting in June, according to the state-run Tibetan Daily. The government must “actively promote intermarriages.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, August 18, 2014 *-*]

“So far, the government push has seen some success. In a report published this month celebrating such policies, the Communist Party’s research office in Tibet said mixed marriages have increased annually by double-digit percentages for the past five years, from 666 couples in 2008 to 4,795 couples in 2013. While avoiding specifics, the report attributed the growth to favorable policies in areas such as social security, reproductive rights, vacations, prizes and special treatment for children born from such marriage, including education, employment and Communist Party membership. *-*

“The government has focused on Tibetans marrying Han Chinese. The government has sold the effort in state-run media as a way to achieve ethnic unity, but critics argue that its true aim is to further weaken Tibetan culture. Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser, an activist who has frequently clashed with authorities, likened the promotion of intermarriage to the worst practices of colonization. There’s nothing objectionable about couples from different backgrounds coming together naturally, she said. Woeser herself is married to a Han Chinese, dissident writer Wang Lixiong. But when the authorities use it as a tool and create policies to encourage it, she said, it feels wrong. She compared it to Japanese police being encouraged to marry local women during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan. *-*

“Government-run newspapers in Tibet have featured happy mixed couples in which the children love both cultures and equally speak Tibetan and Mandarin. But among Tibetans, there is great fear about losing their culture and traditions. Government policy requires mixed couples to choose early on what ethnicity to designate their children in official documents. Many choose to name their children as Han rather than Tibetan, believing that it gives their children a chance at a better life, said a 28-year-old Tibetan woman who works at a local government department. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job. Many also send their children to study in the better schools of mainland China rather than in Tibet, she said. While the percentage of Tibetans who marry Han may be increasing there, the total number remains small, she noted. *-*

“At Chen’s meeting with mixed families on June 18, the party secretary of Tibet praised intermarriage, calling it recognition of the great motherland, Chinese as a people, Chinese culture, and the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, according to state media. Chen called for government departments to use everything in their power and designate key officials to steer public opinion. Party and government officials should act as matchmakers, he said. And Chinese history is dotted with examples of interracial marriage as a strategy to maintain peace. One of the most famous stories is the marriage between Chinese Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty and Songtsan Gambo, then king of Tibet, which sealed a peace treaty. The story was turned into an outdoor musical promoted by the government.” *-*

Tibetan Men, Women and Children

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Tibetan girl
Men have traditionally done heavy work and work outside the home and women have been in charge of household duties, cooking and child rearing. However, members of both sexes often do chores associated with the other sex and sex roles are often reversed. In Bhutan, for example, unmarried men often give up marriage to help their sisters take care of the children.

Children have traditionally been encouraged to take up the same occupations as their parents. Young children are doted upon but older children are ideally raised under strict discipline and religious instruction. Instead of wearing diapers many young Tibetan children wear trousers with a big hole cut in seat as is the case with Chinese. In Lhasa, teenagers use cell phones and surf the Internet on Internet cafes. Young adults drink beer and hang out at clubs.

Parents have traditionally exerted a lot of control over their children. One women, who was unmarried at the advanced age of 31, told her widowed father that she wanted to get married but he asked her to remain home and her husband declined to join her fathers camp.

The Dalai Lama paved the way for women for receive advanced degrees.

See Prostitutes, Sex, Life

Typical Tibetan Family

right Peasant households are typically made of three generations of males and their wives and their children. Members of both sexes rotate in and out of the household with some flexibility. These members can be cousins, uncles, aunts, friends. Inheritance was traditionally handed to the oldest males but often property was given away as a gift to members of both sexes. Monks and nuns did not inherit.

A typical family of 14 in Bhutan is made up of a mother and father in their late forties and early fifties (looking older than their age), their one son and three daughters, the oldest daughter's husband and their five children, the mother brother and the father's cousin (a visiting monk).

The mother and father spend much of their day with their animals. The mother milks them, collecting the milk in wooden buckets in the morning and the father uses the larger animals such as cattle and horses to plow the fields.

Children Customs in Tibet

After a woman has given birth, people burn yak dung in front of gate to inform they are not supposed to enter and to get rid of the polluting atmosphere produced by procreation. Then people pile up a scree pile. If a boy is born, people pile up more chalk scree. If a girl is born, people use other kind of scree and light Wei-Song nearby.

The newborn baby is not given a name until the end of the birth rituals. Generally, a lama or a prestigious senior villager is invited to name the baby, but there are also cases when the baby is named by his or her parents. No matter who names the baby, the naming is performed in accordance with the will of the baby's parents for auspiciousness.

When the baby is one month old, a ritual is held on an auspicious day to take the baby out of the home. Before leaving, black ash taken from the pot bottom is used to blacken the baby's nose to ward off evil. Generally, the baby, donned in new clothes, is taken to the monastery for paryers before Buddha and also for blessing.

Tibetan Birth Ceremony

The Tibetan birth ceremony is called Pang-sai in the Tibetan language. The Pang-sai is actually a cleansing ritual aimed at cleansing the child for the journey into this life. "Pans" means “fowls” and "sai" means “cleaning away” in Tibetan. The Tibetans believe newborn babies come to the world alongside fowls, and a ceremony is needed to get rid of the fowls so they the baby can grow up strong and healthy and the mother can recover soon. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Tibetan birth rituals evolved from a Bon religious rituals to worship God, and have been going on for more than 1,500 years. When a baby is born, two banners are placed on the roof eaves and hang down from the edge. One wards off evil to protect the child and the other attracts good fortune. The actual birth celebration takes place on the third day of the child’s life, for a boy, and fourth day for a girl child. This custom probably dates to old times when children often did not survive birth surviving for three or four days was viewed as a sign they would probably live normally.

People may journey from other places to take part in the birth ceremony. They bring gifts of food and clothing. Buttered tea, barley wine, meat, butter and cheese are presented to represent wishes for an abundant life. New clothing and wonderfully colored scarves are presented to represent shelter for life. Scarves are also presented to the parents to convey good wishes. As soon as they enter the house, guests present hada scarves to the baby's parents and then the baby. This is followed by toasting, presenting gifts, and examining the baby while offering good wishes. Some families throw in a pancake feast to entertain the visitors.

A visit by a monk from a local monastery or one’s family is aimed at insuring that the child will develop wisdom. The monk(s) brings religious banners and lead some worship rituals in which everyone participates. Every day for a week, is family and visitors celebrate until the naming ceremony, but nobody comes into the house or sees the child, except immediate family and the monks. Everybody else people are served tea and celebrate in the courtyard, which is usually partly covered and has a warm fire. A month passes before anyone outside of the family or the monks touches the child.

Tibetan Adult Coming-of-Age Ceremony for Girls

In some parts of Tibet, a girl is considered to have come of age when she reaches 17. Traditionally, her parents have marked the event with a ritual that takes place on the second day of the New Year according to the Tibetan calendar or on a auspicious day around the time of her 17th birthday. Parents prepare beautiful clothes and all kinds of ornaments for the occasion. An woman who is an expert in such thing is invited to do the girl's makeup and hair. When the coming of age ritual is performed, her relatives and friends congratulate the girl and some giver her presents. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

The Tibetan coming-of-age ritual is called “Dai Tou”. "Dai Tou" is a common expression for getting married. However, during this ceremony, she is not married to a man but rather to the sky. Because the girl is married to the blue sky, this ceremony is also called "Dai Tian Tou" ("wearing the head of the sky"). The ceremony shows that a young Tibetan women has entered adulthood. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

In rural areas, small girls typically sport two pigtails. When they reach the age of 13 or 14 they often have three pigtails and four at the age of 15. When a girl is 17 years old, she may have several dozens pigtails, symbolizing her adulthood. Young men are allowed to court a girl with many pigtails. During the coming of age ceremony, the young girl’s parents and perhaps other relatives and some friends too tie her hair into dozens of braids, which means that she is old enough to get married. Then the girl dons a Patsu decoration and the colorful skirt Bangdian apron. Later, the girl's parents, relatives and guests present her with hadas (traditional white scarves) as congratulation. When the ceremony is over, the girl, followed by three or four relatives, goes to a temple to pray before a Buddha statue. When they come back, the girl’s family hosts a big dinner for the guests.

After this ceremony, girls can identify themselves as adults can have social contacts as such with people. They are also technically allowed to love relationship and bring their boyfriends home. To have a child is acceptable for an adult women in the community. Women after the ceremony a girl can either get married or stay at her parents' home—forever if she likes. Women can ask their lovers to become sexual partners. Unmarried women can live with their sons and daughters and form a matriarchal family.

Young Tibetans

Many young, rural Tibetans are anxious to leave their villages and strike out on their own in the towns and cities and get jobs and try to get ahead. One 19-year-old young women, who works at a hotel about two hours by bus from her village and makes more money than the four farmers in her family put together, told the Washington Post, “I’ve lived here long enough. I want to see other places and do other things. Here, nothing changes.”

The 19-year earns $200 a month plus room and broad working at a trendy guesthouse. She prefers to use a Chinese name rather than a Tibetan one, eschews traditional Tibetan clothes, wears her hair in a bob and always has her cell phone handy. That doesn’t mean she has forsaken her culture. She visits a Buddhist temple four times a week, loves to sing Tibetan songs and says her dream is to go on a pilgrimage to Lhasa. Most of the money she makes she gives to her family.

In Lhasa, Tibetan youth sing in nightclubs and while away the hours playing video games in Internet cafes.

Image Sources: Purdue University, China National Tourist Office, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html, Johomap, Tibetan Government in Exile

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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