China is a big a place and weddings vary quite a bit depending on the region, local laws, ethnic and religious concerns and Western cultures and political ideology. With that in mind weddings are often large, expensive events paid for by the groom's family. The Spartan weddings of the Mao era have been replaced with lavish banquets and expensive presents. For those who can afford it, Western-style weddings, with the bride in a white gown and the groom in a suit and tie, are popular. It is important to Chinese to get married on a lucky day is chosen by a fortuneteller. Sometimes individual clans have their own special traditions, superstitions and customs. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
There are usually three stages involved in getting married in China: 1) legal registration, 2) photo-taking and 3) the wedding banquet. The legal registration is an administrative process that is done without recognition or celebration. It is basically receiving the Chinese government’s approval to be married. Restraints that can delay a wedding, or even lead to the cancellation of marriage plans are the cost and availability of housing and sometimes the cost of the wedding itself if the parents insist on too lavish of a wedding or too large a guest list. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004; “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Important elements of a Chinese wedding include ancestor worship, elder reverence, vigilance against omens, the use of professional matchmakers and fortunetellers, the ornate gift-giving rituals and patrilineal kinship. The primary objectives are to enhance families and to perpetuate lineage. The element of time likewise plays a major part in Chinese weddings. Compatibility between bride and groom, for one, is more often than not determined by their respective star signs and horoscopes, which are in turn determined by the date and time of their births. The time of the ceremony is carefully picked, again for purposes of adherence to what their horoscopes dictate. [Source: Jonathan Dionisio, July 13, 2009 //] kasal.com *^]
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
Family, Religion and Chinese Weddings
Chinese elders usually play a major role in the Chinese wedding. This role traditionally starts even before the child to be wed is born, when parents arrange for the weddings of their children. Sometimes, couples seek the help of a professional matchmaker, usually an elderly local woman of reputable character. Children, for their part, customarily follow their parents, as dictated by the analects of Confucius. [Source: Jonathan Dionisio, July 13, 2009 //] kasal.com *^]
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. Marriages are not religious events in Buddhism. Sometimes monks are invited so the couple and their relatives can obtain religious merit. The event is sanctioned by the community and relatives and often oriented as much to show respect for parents as sanction the union between a man and woman.
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.
“On the question of Christian church weddings, “Blind Date Guidebook for Communist Party Members” says, according to te Wall Street Journal, the party doesn’t condemn them outright but reminded readers that Communist Party members are atheists whose beliefs are guided by the teachings of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong. Engaging in religious activities would “weaken the party’s battle effectiveness and lower its prestige among the masses,” the guide said. That post drew some critical responses on social media. “Of course they cannot get married in the church. Communists can only marry in the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall,” said one commentator on Weibo. “Another commentator seemed to be making a jibe at the tone of the advice: “The most romantic thing I can think of,” the comment said, “is to build socialism with Chinese characteristics with you.” [Source: Pei Li, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2017]
Bride Prices, Dowries, and Wedding Expenses in China
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). In some places there are dowries (money paid by the bride's family to the groom's family or to the groom) but bride prices are more common or the groom is expected to provide a house. These days a man is expected to have a house or apartment before he can get married. Before a man from the countryside can get married he needs at least $10,000 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.
A bride price is paid in cash or presents and can total several thousand dollars. In many places the bride's family provides a dowry or pitches in significantly on a house or wedding costs. 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. With the increased prosperity. bride-price and dowry costs have risen dramatically since the 1970s.
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.
In 2016, the BBC reported: “A shocking, albeit unverified, story has been making the rounds on Chinese social media, highlighting concerns over the traditional practice of paying a bride price. It was a tale that resonated with many Chinese people. A local station ran a story about a man who wanted to marry his pregnant girlfriend. But when he wasn't able to afford a payment of more than £20,000 (about $30,000), the woman's father put an end to any talk of a prospective wedding — and forced his daughter to get an abortion. It's unclear whether there's any actual truth to the story. But the strong reaction to the story online points to a larger issue anxiety over the rising cost of bride prices in a country where there's a marked shortage of women.[Source: BBC News, April 5, 2016]
“The bride price is similar to a dowry, but paid from prospective groom to the family of the bride, rather than from the bride to the groom's side of the family. Manya Koetse, China expert and editor of What's on Weibo, says it's a centuries-old tradition in the country that lived on through the communist era. And Koetse, says the sums involved today are rising in step with China's growing economy. "It was there in the 1950s, 60s, 70s... In that time the bride price could be a thermos flask, or bedding," she says. "Later on it became furniture, then a radio or a watch. When we come to the 1980s it could have been a television or a refrigerator. And since China's economy has been opening up, that's when the bride price started changing into hard cash."
“Economic prosperity is one reason for the rising bride price, but another key factor is the shortage of women caused by China's one-child policy. In some areas the bride price has skyrocketed, and the people who are most hurt by this are men in rural areas. "They're called 'bare branches'," says Koetse, "guys who are very poor, aren't educated, they don't have a wife or children, so they're like a tree without leaves. There are villages across China which are full of men like this." "They have double trouble actually," she says. "Women leave these villages to move to bigger cities to find a man who can offer them more than the guys in the village. And the few women who remain might have 20 men each who want to marry them, so they can ask for a high bride price."
“As for the reaction to the story about the man whose girlfriend was forced to get an abortion, Koetse says the online reactions in China to the local news were somewhat surprising, at least to Westerners. Many people defending the father's actions and criticising the couple for getting involved with each other without thinking of the implications. Others took a different view and criticised the bride price tradition.
Marriage Ceremony and Lack Thereof 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.
In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“Marriage customs in China certainly vary widely, but of such a thing as being present at “the ceremony,” but not at “the wedding breakfast,” we have never heard. Indeed, it can scarcely be said that, in our sense of the word, there is any “ceremony.” Whatever may be added or subtracted from the performances, the essence of a Chinese wedding seems to consist in the arrival of the bride at her future home. The “feast” is the main feature of the occasion. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg; Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang,a village in Shandong.]
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.
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.
Mao and Deng-Era Marriage Physical
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.
Modern Weddings in China
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.
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
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.
Wedding Night and Honeymoons in China
Wedding night bed
After the banquet some newlyweds in Shanghai cruise around in new car with life-size Micky and Minnie Mouse sitting in the backseat. At the end of the evening, a group of friends accompanies the bride and groom to their hotel room and carries out several mildly naughty pranks to tease the newlyweds.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: The good times don't "last for long though, most young couples end up living with their parents until they can afford to purchase a house of their own. It is not unusual for multiple generations of family to live together in China. Oftentimes, should a couple afford to buy a house of their own and live independently, it is only a short time until they have a child and need their parents close by to care for the child while they work.”[Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
In the old days most couples couldn't afford a honeymoon. Usually the groom got a few days off from work and the newlyweds stayed at the home of the groom's parents. The couple usually got the best room in the house, which unfortunately also happened to be the television room. This meant that the couple had to share their love nest with other members of the family when their favorite program was on. Couples that did get the opportunity to go on a honeymoon often made love for the first time on their way to their destination in a train compartment shared with three or four strangers. These days many couples can enjoy a honeymoon similar to ones enjoyed in the West.
George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ The custom of the bride returning to her parental home with gifts after three days" — the tradition in the past — is still sometimes observed. In some regions this is simplified to the bride returning home on the same day as the wedding (depending on the distances involved), but she may also leave the house and immediately return and then go to the groom’s house and count that as the “returning home.” Contemporary population laws that have limited families to one child have not only led to a great imbalance of the sexes but have promoted divorce, so that a woman who has a female child is likely to be divorced so that her husband can remarry and try for a male child. There is an imperative within Chinese society to ensure that there are offspring to carry on the name and to worship ancestors.A girl will leave her family on marriage and become part of her husband’s family and consequently have to pay respects to his ancestors. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]
Money and Weddings in 19th Century China
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: ““One of the most characteristic, and for that reason most worthy of notice, is the method in which ordinary weddings and funerals are conducted. In China, each of these occasions involves the expenditure of a great deal of money and the consumption of a great deal of food. In each case, the family which has to provide for the feasts is regarded by all persons concerned as a goose which is to be stripped of as much of its down as possible. All friends of the family are supposed to send in their contributions in the shape of money or food, and each one who sends in either money or food, makes it his business to see that what he takes out in eating is as much more than what he put in as possible. In the case of women this is easy, for each of them attends with one or more small children, which, as in other parts of the world, are the terror and the despair of the hosts. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
“The ' kitchen is at some distance from the hall in which the feast is served, and on these occasions it is well understood, that all that any one can succeed in carrying off for himself is in a manner lawful plunder. We are assured on the best authority, that in the case of rich families, it is often the case that there is as much stolen as there is eaten, the very dishes themselves often disappearing in the, confusion. But why, asks the innocent foreigner, does not the master of the house surround himself with his own people, so that he can be sure of fair treatment? The answer is, that this is exactly the root of the trouble. No family is so rich as not to have a cloud of poor relatives, and these occasions are the ones in which these poor relatives reap,the only benefits which they derive from their kinship with these who are better off than themselves. If the master of the house were to exclude them altogether, they would not only steal in some other way, but they would take care to do so in such a manner that he would be disgraced by the insufficiency of his provision, a disgrace which, it need hardly be said, he dreads more even than the loss of his goods. Well aware of this state of things, he considers it cheaper to let the pilferers have their way, which they always do.
“But this is by no means all. The gifts of each guest are sent to a particular place, and an exact entry of them is made at the time, so that the master of the house may know how much he is out of pocket when the affair is over. The most skillful writer of accounts in the village is asked to superintend the registration of the gifts, which he is generally willing enough to do. But he does not do it for nothing. Much of the money is sent in brass cash, and it is easy to make a mistake of a few hundred in the counting, and to transfer the balance to the leg of his trousers, where it will never be seen. Some of the money will be in cash notes, and if so the concealment of them is all the easier, and the accounts will be so arranged as to cover the deficit, or a name may be omitted altogether, for the guests do not go to the host with matters of this sort. If a guest is on good terms with, the keeper of accounts, it is easy to make an entry of a thousand cash, which has no corresponding funds to represent it and then to “cover it in" with the rest, by which means a guest gets credit for a handsome contribution which has never made.. It is easy to see how everyone of these evils could be wholly prevented. If each guest, for example, were to bring a card, which he left with the host, and then send the money with a similar card to the accountant, ' the latter would have no opportunity to commit petty frauds, but in that case the guest would find the temptation to write a fictitious amount too strong for him, as the keeper of accounts would then certainly be suspected. Besides, the master of the house will himself be the keeper of accounts for some one else at some other time, ' and he perhaps doubts whether it is altogether for his own highest interest to hedge up the way too closely. In all departments of their life, family, political, and national, the Chinese act upon the assumption that too strong apressure is sure to result in an explosion. For this reason, . every prudent Chinese is by the proverbs of everyday life, as well as by his own instincts, prevented from pressing things to extremities.
In 1899, Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “In the south of China he transfer of money, at the engagement of a daughter, from the parents of the boy to those of the girl, assumes for all practical purposes the aspect of a purchase, which, pure and simple, it often is. But in other parts of China we never hear of such a transaction, but only of a dowry from the bride’s family, much in the manner of Western lands at times. Vast sums are undoubtedly squandered by the very wealthy Chinese at the weddings of their daughters, and it is a common adage that to such expenditures there is no limit. But in weddings in the ordinary walks of life, to which all but a small fraction of the people belong, the impression which will be made upon the observant foreigner will generally be that there is a great amount of shabby gentility, a thin veneer of display beneath which it is easy to see the real texture. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“In this as in everything relating to Chinese usages it is impossible to make general statements which shall at the same time be accurate. There are regions in northern China where the money exacted from the family of the future bridegroom is so considerable, that what remains after the real bridal outfit has been purchased is a positive source of profit to the father. There are also other districts where local custom requires the bridegroom’s family to give very little or even nothing at all for dowry, but exacts heavily from the bride’s family. There must be a large supply of clothing, and bedding; even when at her own home the young married woman must sew for her husband’s family, and the one which furnishes the bride is subject to a constant series of petty exactions.
Chinese Communist Party Wedding Rules
In October 2015, China's Communist Party issued a series of rules on weddings for party members. The BBC reported: The theme was frugality when the party's disciplinary watchdog issued a raft of tweaked guidelines for its 88 million members. Even though the wording was vague, the statement on how these guidelines should be enforced remained well within the spirit of the party's ongoing austerity drive. It is all in the name of stamping out corruption, but the perceived intrusion into life's most significant rituals sparked a backlash online. [Source: BBC News, February 19, 2016]
“1. Don't profit from a wedding or a funeral: “It is part of traditional Chinese custom for guests at such events to give cash to the bride and groom. At weddings, gifts are seen as wishing the couple good luck. Weddings are seen as key indicators of one's social status in Chinese culture, and there is an emphasis on holding extravagant affairs. Now, members are discouraged from using their power to "hold large parties" and using the "manpower and resources" that come with one's position, such as employees or service staff, at such events. They also cannot use weddings "as vehicles to make money", so the custom of giving and receiving money at these events is frowned upon. “The watchdog noted that sometimes members could hold events "on a very large scale or invite lots of guests" where in the process they would receive "large sums in gifts".
“2. Don't be a nuisance: In smaller villages weddings can last days and involve mass processions. So the guidance noted that such events cannot "disturb or obstruct daily production, lives, work, business, teaching, research, traffic and any other regular orders". It added for good measure that they also cannot "injure or kill people" or "violate the interests of the country, collective and people".
“3. Leave behind the old traditions: Members are encouraged not to adhere blindly to their local cultural customs, although the watchdog stressed this did not mean a total ban on local traditions. "Members, particularly those in the leadership, must note that they could cause a bad impression among the public, and so should observe customs while also organising simple and regular weddings," it said. But the explanation cut no ice among some, as a backlash took place online. On microblogging network Weibo, many users complained of the rules as being too overbearing and draconian. "The enforcing of rules has become askew, even normal citizens are being regulated now," said one user. "Holding a wedding can damage the country's interests? Are you referring to a marriage with the Dalai Lama?" mocked another.
Chinese County Bans Extravagant Weddings to Curtail Corruption
In 2021, a county in Yunnan Province in southwest China banned birthday parties and other celebrations, following calls from the central government to be more frugal and reduce bridbery. The BBC reported: “It also set out new rules for weddings and funerals, including a ban on cash gifts more than 200 yuan (US$31). The rules in Funing county only apply to all communist party members, civil servants and village organisation leaders — not to most residents.[Source: BBC, May 13, 2021]
“It is a traditional Chinese custom to give cash gifts at parties. “However, they have also been used as bribes for influential hosts. This is not the first time the Communist Party has cracked down on its members. In 2015, they were banned from extravagant eating and drinking, joining golf clubs or entering private clubs, as part of an anti-corruption drive. However, China has generally for years been calling on its citizens to hold more "simple and moderate" weddings, condemning "extravagance and wastefulness".
“According to the new directive issued last week, parties celebrating occasions such as birthdays, job promotions, or housewarmings, would be banned. There are also very specific rules some have to follow. Public servants, for example, will now be required to report wedding details — such as the cost and guest list — to the local government in advance. The number of wedding banquet tables should be no more than 20, with the overall guest list capped at 200, it added. The cost to feed each guest should not be more than 50 yuan if the banquet is held in a restaurant, and not more than 300 yuan for the whole table if held at home. The number of cars for the wedding procession should also be kept below 10.
“Weddings and funerals are seen as key indicators of one's social status in Chinese culture, and there is sometimes a societal expectation — especially for those in power like village leaders — to hold extravagant and elaborate affairs. A typical wedding banquet can see hundreds of guests attend, and it is typically for guests to bring monetary gifts. In smaller villages, weddings and funerals can last days and involve mass processions.
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