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.
Monogamy is the most frequent form of marriage. Marriages are often class-endogamous (within a specific social group, religious denomination, caste, or ethnic group). Postmarital residence has typically been virilocal ( married couple resided with or near the husband's parents).
Rebecca R. French wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Traditionally, Tibetans calculated the degree of relation allowed in marriage as five generations back on the mother's side and seven on the father's, although many were unable to determine genealogy this far back. Although of astrological and cosmological import, marriage was viewed as a nonreligious joining of two households and individuals. Serfs from different manors who wished to marry required permission from their lords or their lords' agents. Yellow sect lamas do not marry, but lamas of most other sects are free to do so. [Source: Rebecca R. French, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia — Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]
Tibetans generally marry in their mid-twenties. George P. Monger wrote: During the late twentieth century, it became usual for young people to choose marriage partners. The age of marrying varied among groups, ranging for women from about sixteen to twenty or twenty-five years of age. The style of marriage differs in different parts of Tibet. In some places, the couple would not have known of the wedding until just before, because the negotiations had been carried out only between the parents in secret. The girl’s parents are usually not required to formally provide a dowry for their daughter, although as a matter of convention they often provide domestic items to help the couple set up their new home. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004]
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.
Websites and Sources Women, Marriage and Polyandry Center for Research of Tibet www.case.edu/affil ; Tibetan Women Resources kotan.org ; Wikipedia article on Polyandry in Tibet Wikipedia ; Women of Tibet womenoftibet.org ;
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 in 1987, “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.
Chinese View of Tibetan Marriages
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 |]
“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.” |
Dating in Tibet
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]
George P. Monger wrote: “In Tibet, the wife has a great deal of authority over her husband, but she has no choice in marriage partner. When a man achieves marriageable age, his parents look for a suitable wife for him. When they find a suitable girl they communicate with her parents via a middleman, and all arrangements are made between the parents. The couple usually only find out that they are to be married on the wedding day. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004]
In the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, the Internet has become part of the matchmaking market, with Internet sites developed for unmarried people to advertise as available for marriage. The tradition of the fair or event designed for couples to be able to meet and get to know each other is also continued through “speed dating” events, at which the participants have a short time in which to talk to participants in turn, judge whether they would like to meet again, and, if so, arrange another, more leisurely meeting.
According to the Chinese government:Nowadays, Tibetan youths have greater freedom of social life before marriage. A common way of falling in love and becoming engaged is through singing local folk songs. Youths usually convey their mutual admiration through the "Guozhuang" (a dance around the fireplace stones), which they like very much. It is particularly the case with the Wang-guo Festival, when the young people, dressed in bright costumes, go as agreed to the dance to choose their beloved companions of life. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]
A tea party is a most grand occasion for social life and dating among the youth. It usually takes place in the slack-farming season or on festivals. At the tea party, youths drink tea while echoing each other's songs. Through singing, the young people find their soul mate. After engagement, a go-between is employed by the male party to bring presents to the parents of the other party, seeking their agreement on the marriage. Once the agreement is obtained, a date is appointed for the wedding. The wedding proceeds in singing, through which people's feelings expressed. Thus songs become a vehicle of emotions, adding an infinite zest to the wedding, which will not end until midnight when both sexes have enjoyed Guozhuang to their heart's content.
Adolescent Sex in Tibet
In “A Study of Polyandry”, Peter of Greece and Denmark wrote in 1963 on Western Tibet: “I enquired who it was who gave the children their sex education. The answer was that nobody did. Parents are forbidden by custom to speak to them of such things, and they have to pick up what they can learn from playmates. Another source of information was watching animals, it seemed, and everyone agreed that that may lean something from witnessing their parents’ behaviour during the long winter nights in the Jan-sa. Anyhow, they “somehow” knew something about sex by the time they were approximately six years of age”. Masturbation in the very young was discouraged by threats of witches that would cut off their ears; the older ones are beaten.[Source: “Growing Up Sexually, Volume” I by D. F. Janssen, World Reference Atlas, 2004]
Ludwar-Ene (1975) provides a detailed interpretation of sexual socialisation among the Nepalese Tibetans. Infants from the age of three are raised in extreme modesty, girls more than boys. Mothers and neighbours distract the infant from and shame the child for genital manipulation, which is presumed to go underground.
Norbu, elder brother of the Dalai Lama, argues that “parents often arrange marriages for their children. But it is seldom that children are married against their wishes, and the wise guidance of older people often results in a happier marriage than when the youthful heart follows its desires” . Normally, however, boys and girls around the age of 18 or 19 “start looking toward marriage”
Dowries and the Engagement Process in Tibet
George P. Monger wrote: Although there is no recognized dowry, a bride may be given a broad silk belt (a charma) studded with silver nails (borchen) or a silver medallion known as a losar. A nomad bride would be given a silver necklace with a hook, which was originally used for hanging a milking pail. This is an emblem of marriage and represents the pail of milk that the new mother-in-law traditionally presented to the bride. Among nomadic peoples in Tibet, arrangements for marriage are negotiated between the families using a neutral intermediary (a member of neither family). The goods — yaks, skins, and textiles — that the groom will bring to the new home are negotiated. This is sealed with a fermented barley drink called chang and the exchange of gifts. These gifts are known as nathag tak or “nose rope.” Once accepted, the parents of the bride cannot back out of the agreement. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004]
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 khatas (silk scarves), 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. ++
“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 Khata 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 khata upon leaving.” ++
George P. Monger wrote: Tibet is a large and mountainous country where customs and practices for weddings can vary from valley to valley. As followers of Buddha, there is no overt religious ceremony in a Tibetan marriage. Much of the ceremonial is centered around the woman leaving her parents’ home. All is accomplished with the blessing of a lama, who, after careful study of signs, almanacs, and the gods, selects the most auspicious day for the wedding. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004]
The wedding celebration begins with banquets two or three days before the actual marriage. Relatives and friends visit the family with presents, including money, food, and clothing. At the end of this period, the bridegroom’s parents send representatives to escort the bride back to the groom’s home. This entourage takes a payment known as “breast money” or the “milk price,” to compensate the bride’s mother for the loss of her daughter and be a remuneration for bringing up her daughter. Sometimes a female yak is given to the mother as the “milk price.” The day before the wedding, the groom and his party arrive at the bride’s house (or tent) with a horse on which she will be carried away. He is welcomed with an exchange of white scarves. Much drinking of chang follows, and the groom and his party lodge with the bride’s family for about three days before they, with the bride, return to his family. At this point a female yak may be presented to her mother as the “milk price.”
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).
Typically on the wedding day the bride’s parents hold a farewell banquet for her, followed by an emotional farewell as she is placed on horseback and escorted to the home of the groom. At the farewell dinner, 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 at the groom’s house, her way is barred until a man with a warlike appearance wields a charmed sword to cut apart the demons that rode with the bridal party. The groom’s mother meets the bride with sour milk, baked flour, sugar, and butter and leads the party into the house and 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 Clothes
The bride typically wears a nice traditional Tibetan dress, jewelry and a special jewel that hangs from her forehead. When she is escorted to the groom’s house her face may be covered with a cloth so that none may glimpse her during the procession. If her family has some money she is bedecked with jewels and wears an engraved silver reliquary (a gao) around her neck that protects her from evil spirits as she transitions from the protection of her family gods to the protection of her husband’s family god, with whom she has yet to find favor. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004]
George P. Monger wrote: Brides of the Tibetan nomads of Amdo and Kham are elaborately dressed. Her hair may be braided with one hundred and eight braids and finished with a band of coral and turquoise beads attached to the braids (unmarried girls wear their hair in two large plaits). Coral and turquoise are both highly prized by the Tibetans, and the red coral ensures that a bride will be happy. Red is a color that augurs well and is also the color of marriage. The one hundred and eight braids demonstrate that she has loving and good-natured parents. In Kham, the bride may have an amber ball surrounded by coral on the top of her head. Elsewhere she may wear a turquoise-encrusted headband with a larger semiprecious stone at her forehead.
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]
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. A girl meets the bridal party and gives the bride a pink scarf to put over her mouth and ears before she dismounts. Typically, the bride is led the groom's house where a red carpet, decorated with the swastika, is laid for her to dismount. As the bride crosses the threshold of the groom's family's house she is given a cup of yogurt. She flings a few drops to the sky with her right hand and prays for the protection of the Buddha and of the mountain gods — the “offering of the yogurt of the oath.” Sometimes at the juncture the the marriage is regarded as complete.
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]
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).
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 khata presented by the groom, she enters the house. A priest or lama is usually present to inform the gods and spirits of a new addition to the household. After the groom’s parents distribute pieces of silk to the couple and the guests, the couple is regarded as man and wife. They then sit together in the living room to receive good wishes, khata 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]
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.
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 khata, yak butter tea, chemar and other gifts with each other. Only then is the whole wedding ceremony in Tibet considered completed.
China Promotes Mixed Marriages with Tibetans
In August 2014, William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “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 and activist Tsering Woeser 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. 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. -
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 \=/; 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.
Last updated September 2022