WEDDINGS CUSTOMS IN CHINA
wedding invitation cards There are usually three stages involved in getting married in China: 1) legal registration, 2) photo-taking and 3) the wedding banquet. Unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese weddings make extensive use of the color red, for it is believed that the color symbolizes joy and luck. On the other hand, the practice of showering the newlyweds with rice is remarkably present in both cultures. In a marriage, the dragon symbolizes the male role while the phoenix symbolizes the female role. Dragon and Phoenix designs symbolize male and female harmony and a balanced relationship. The motif is rooted in mythology where the dragon symbolizes the Emperor and at his side stands the magically powerful phoenix with her life-giving song. [Source: Jonathan Dionisio, July 13, 2009 /*/] kasal.com]
Malicious influences are thought to easily repelled by things such veils and red umbrellas. George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ A Chinese practice was to hold a sacred umbrella over the bride’s head to prevent evil influences from harming that sensitive part of the body (she would also be conveyed to the groom’s house in an enclosed sedan chair). [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]
“A Chinese tradition was that if a betrothed girl died before her wedding her betrothed would go to her parents’ house and ask for her shoes. These he would take to his home, stopping at street corners to call upon her to follow. On arriving at his home, her spirit was informed of the fact, and the shoes were placed either on or under a chair at a table. Incense was burned on the table, and a tablet placed in her memory among the family ancestral tablets. Everything was done as if she were present and wearing the shoes. It is considered by some that the idea that a life ^
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1899: ““One of the most characteristic methods in which the Chinese lack of sympathy is manifested is in the treatment which brides receive on their wedding day. They are often very young, are always timid and are naturally terror-stricken at being suddenly thrust among strangers. Customs vary widely, but there seems to be a general indifference to the feelings of the poor child thus exposed to the public gaze. In some places it is allowable for anyone who chooses to turn back the curtains of the chair and stare at her. In other regions, the unmarried girls find it a source of keen enjoyment to post themselves at a convenient position, as the bride passes, to throw upon her handfuls of hay seed or chaff, which will obstinately adhere to her carefully oiled hair for a long time. Upon her emergence from the chair, at the house of her new parents, she is subjected to the same kind of criticism as a newly bought hdrse, with what feelings, on her part, it is not difficult to imagine. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
Websites and Sources: Marriage: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinatown ConnectionChinatown Connection ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; Agate Travel warriortours.com : Dating Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection ; Wedding Wedding Customs chinese-poems.com
Auspicious Times for Chinese Weddings
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. Dates with eights are viewed as especially auspicious for weddings because eights, like knots, represent a successful union.
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.
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. 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." [Source: AFP, November 12, 2011]
Marriage Compatibility According to the Chinese Zodiac
The Chinese zodiac sign is based on a 12-year cycle, each year represented by an animal, associated with a specific type of personality. As such, those born under a certain Chinese zodiac also bear the same characteristics of their sign. As ritual to ensuring marital bliss, soon-to-wed couples, consult their Chinese zodiac sign to see if they are compatible with their soon-to-be partner for life. [Source: Jonathan Dionisio, July 13, 2009 /*/]
It is easier to identify incompatible signs of the Chinese zodiac. The main reason why certain zodiac signs are incompatible with one another is because of the clash of their personalities. For example those born under the year of the Dragon (1964, 1976, 1988) are said to have “quick, sometimes vengeful tempers”. They are also known to be aggressive and dominant. With this, they become incompatible with people born in the Year of the Dog (1958, 1970, 1982) since they have “a sharp tongue and a tendency to be a faultfinder”. /*/
Here is the complete list of incompatible signs: 1) Rat (1960, 1972, 1984, 1996) and Horse (1954, 1966, 1978, 1990); 2) Ox (961, 1973, 1985, 1997) and Sheep (1955, 1967, 1979, 1991); 3) Tiger (1962, 1974, 1986, 1998) and Monkey (1956, 1968, 1980, 1992); 4) Rabbit (1963, 1975, 1987, 1999) and Rooster (1957, 1969, 1981, 1993); 5) Dragon (1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000) and Dog (958, 1970, 1982, 1994); 6) Snake (1965, 1977, 1989, 2001) and 7) Pig (1959, 1971, 1983, 1995). /*/
On the other end, there are Chinese zodiac signs that are perfect for each other. They complement the personal traits of their partner’s signs. To establish compatibility, astrologers have grouped each of the twelve signs into four trines. By definition, a trine is a Ptolemaic aspect with an angle of 120̊ (1/3 of the 360̊ ecliptic), represented by the triangle. The trine indicates harmony, and ease of expression, with the two elements reinforcing each other. In Chinese astrology, each trine is evenly spaced at four years apart. People born under similar trines are said to have the same traits, mindset, and personality. This makes the couple with the same group of trine very compatible. /*/
1) First Trine: Rat, Dragon, and Monkey: These three signs are said to be the most powerful signs in the Chinese zodiac. People born under these signs are said to be capable of great good or great evil. When it comes to relationships, they are highly intelligent, charming, yet authoritative. Their relationships are usually intense and would like it to remain that way. 2) Second Trine: Ox, Snake, and Rooster: Members of the second trine are known to conquer life through endurance, application, and slow accumulation of energy. They are meticulous planners, and are very good at it. Also, they are loyal, philosophical, patient, good-hearted, and has high moral values. /*/
3) Third Trine: Tiger, Horse, and Dog: People born in the year of the Tiger, Horse, and Dog can simply be described as the 'true romantics'. They set relationships and personal contacts as their highest priorities. The third trine signs are also productive, engaging, independent, and loyal. They have the tendency be very protective. The three signs do not enjoy being told what to do, but will listen when comes from a person they love or trust whole-heartedly. 4) Fourth Trine: Rabbit, Sheep and Pig: The last trine is a seeker of beauty in life. They are capable of great sacrifices for the sake of their loved one. These three signs are compassionate, caring, sensible, emphatic, prudent, and are very affectionate. Off all the four, members of the fourth trine possess a calmer nature than the rest of the zodiacs. Incidentally, they are fine artists in their lovemaking. /*/
For couples who are neither in the compatible or incompatible group (example, Tiger and Rabbit), the degree of their compatibility may vary. This depends upon their personalities and the nature of their relationship. Whether compatible or not, the married life of a couple depends on themselves. Their love, respect, and understanding for each other should serve as the foundation of their relationship. Their ideals and characteristics may cause conflict at times, but surely, by the end of the day, their love for one another should transcend their differences. Best wishes! /*/
Weddings 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.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: The real festivities start with an elaborate series of photos that the couple commissions to be taken. Wedding photography has become a huge money-making industry in China. Couples spend entire days dressing up in various rented costumes, having their hair and makeup done, and posing in front of natural and artificial backdrops. On any given auspicious date, parks will be full of couples lined up to have their photo taken. There is a park in Hangzhou, a popular wedding photo destination, that has an entire section of props for wedding photos, from traditional fake-flower covered archways to Gone With the Wind-style porch swings. The most popular wedding photo pose has the bride beautifully coiffed and looking demurely into the camera, while the groom is staring up at her with eyes full of adoration and longing. After hours of this, the couple ends up with a professional album, long before the actual day of the wedding celebration. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
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. 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.
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.
Wedding Shoot for One Chinese Couple
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]
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.” 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.”
China’s Billion-dollar Wedding Photo Industry
“China Love” is a 2019 documentary by Australian filmmaker Olivia Martin-McGuire about China’s pre-wedding photo industry. Catherine Zauhar wrote in Sup China: Giant photo studios now populate the streets of every major Chinese city. Within these walls are closets filled with designer wedding gowns, elaborate fairytale sets that would be the envy of a Hollywood director, and in-house photoshoppers who work tooth and nail to polish every pixel. These shoots result in larger-than-life photos that showcase a couple glowing in the center of a magical, fake world. [Source: Catherine Zauhar, Sup China. February 7, 2020]
The documentary China Love “digs deeper into these fantastical images, from the days of the photoshoot to the aftermath, when the photos are hung and the wedding is over. It is a keenly observed debut from Martin-McGuire, an expat in China. She deftly explores the photoshoot industry by following a few couples about to get married. Individual stories are put into the cultural context of the Cultural Revolution, which marks a clear divide between two generations: those who have the chance to take wedding photos and those who did not.
“In the past, Chinese people dismissed public displays of affection. They were seen as a mark of vanity. As a result, older Chinese couples are often very private about relationships. However, the younger generation, one that has been influenced by stereotypically Western ideas of romance, have started to embrace these more elaborate performances of love that are closely linked with wealth. As the country and its people have gotten richer, Chinese people have started to celebrate love through material possessions, such as new houses, vacations, and glamorous wedding ceremonies. During the Cultural Revolution, vanity was the enemy. Now, it’s the marker of success within a family, a society, and an economy.
Through China Love, we meet a cast of couples that showcase different facets of contemporary love and marriage in China. There is Li and Jun Bo, who are set up by a matchmaker. This couple, who seem to lack passion and romance, decide to get married over text. They are from a more rural part of the country, but still put great effort and lots of money into their wedding photos. The photos are blown up and hung all over their new home, and serve as their only decorations. We also meet Will and his persnickety fiancé Viona, who tirelessly argues, fights, and barks for the perfect image. We learn that her brattiness over the photoshoot disguises a heavy anxiety: that the second the shutter snaps will be the best moment of her life. And of course, there are couples from the older generation, who are not customers but spectators. Peipei and Xuezhong were married during the Cultural Revolution and had to bike 12 kilometers to have their only wedding photo taken: a single passport-style black-and-white photo showing the young couple shoulder to shoulder. Through them, we watch love that’s simmered like stew, becoming a rich and complex substance that can only be achieved through time and loyalty.
China Love also introduces us to one powerful individual: Allen Shi, the “Godfather of the Wedding Industry,” whose photo studios bring in millions of dollars every day. Shi is haunted by his past. He was once poor, and now will do anything in his power to distance himself from his roots. For him, poverty is pain, therefore wealth is the ultimate pleasure.
Collecting of Bride for a Chinese Wedding
George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: Typically, before the registry, “the bride is collected from her house by the groom and the groomsmen, but today, if possible, they will go in decorated cars, with the bridesmaids trying to prevent them from collecting the bride by making them answer questions and perform tasks to prove the groom’s love and ability to look after the woman. The groom is aided in these tests by his groomsmen. After he has passed all the tests and has given the bridesmaids some red packets, the groom and his party are allowed into the house to greet and collect the bride. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]
“At this point, the couple serves tea to the bride’s family, beginning with her parents and followed by her other relatives. The relatives give the couple a present in return, usually red packets or jewelry. Sometimes families follow tradition in throwing rice or using a red umbrella as the bride leaves home, and sometimes her parents and relatives will go with the couple to the marriage registrar or church for the wedding ceremony.
“Before going to the registrar, the couple first go to the groom’s family home, where they serve tea to the groom’s family, again with the parents served first, followed by his other relatives, each giving the bride a present of red packets or jewelry. All then go to the government marriage registrar for the signing of the marriage license.
Wedding Banquets in China
Typically after the marriage registry there is lavish banquet with friends, guests and family at a fancy restaurant with 12 courses, often including appetizer, shark fin soup, spicy chicken, seafood, suckling pig, dessert, fresh fruit 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.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: "Chinese wedding banquets have become a blend of Western customs like saying vows, exchanging rings and pouring champagne, with truly Chinese customs like changing clothes four to five times, rounds of gombei toasts at individual tables, and a game where the bride attempts to light cigarettes for the guests while people playfully blow out the flame before she can accomplish her task. The wedding banquet is an elaborate multi-course dinner theatre that lasts for hours. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ The wedding feast is probably considered the most important part of the celebrations. This is more of a parental event than any other part of the wedding. Although the groom, or the couple, usually pays for the feast, each set of parents seeks to impress relatives and command respect for the size and lavishness of the feast. This is sometimes a source of tension between the families. The groom’s family does not want the bride’s family to outnumber them, and at the same time the bride’s parents will want to put on a good show for their own relatives. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]
Before the food is served, the guests may play mahjong, the Chinese national game, and have their photographs taken with the bride and groom. The best man and maid of honor will toast the bride and groom. When the food is ready to be served, it is announced by the waiters playing a form of xylophone. As the soup is served, the bridal couple go from table to table toasting the guests; during the meal the couple’s friends, groomsmen, and bridesmaids play tricks on the couple, trying to get the groom to publicly show his love for his bride. Some of the games are very outrageous.
During her wedding day the bride will change her clothes four or five times, and after the meal she changes again. When the guests leave, the couple, along with their parents and other relatives, form a line at the door to thank the departing guests for coming. The bridal party then go home; if the couple are staying in a hotel for the night, some of their more persistent friends will track them down and play more tricks on them.
Wedding Presents in China
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. Each of the guests at the feast presents a monetary gift, but often it barely cover the costs of the food. The guests usually 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.
Present are given before, during and after the wedding. The biggest presents are provided by the bride's and groom's family. George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ In the traditional Chinese wedding, the groom’s family sends gifts to the bride’s family, which include cash, food, and sacrifices for the ancestors, and, since the young woman leaves her birth family and becomes part of the groom’s family on marriage, the bride herself takes gifts for the groom, either just before the wedding day or, if she lives far away, on the wedding day. These gifts include jewelry, kitchen utensils, bridal linens, such as sheets and pillow covers, and clothes. Consequently, there is an exchange of gifts between the two families rather than what could be viewed as a buyer/seller exchange. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]
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."
Image Sources: 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.
Last updated September 2021