Weddings in China

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 10, 2021

Chinese weddings are still important ceremonies for Chinese people as marriage is considered one of the three most important events (the others being birth and death) in a person’s life.

Ancient Chinese Wedding

The ancient rituals of a Chinese wedding were created by Zhou Gong a prince during the reign of Zhou Wu Wang (1066-1063 B.C.), which set the six rules in the Book of Rites for the union of a couple.

A marriage was to be “mei shuo zhi yan, fu mu zhi ming” which translated as, listen to the marriage broker and obey the command of the parents. A young couple did not have to meet and fall in love before they were married because the purpose of a union then was to continue the family line.

The compatibility of the eight characters such as year, month, day, and time of birth of a couple and the family background were important considerations when deciding to marry. It was important that this information is gathered by a marriage broker called a mei po and that the dates of birth be assessed by a geomancer.

Traditional Chinese Wedding Dress
Traditional Chinese Wedding Dress

Mei Po

This was part of the first rite while the second rite was the presentation of the girl’s name and other details.

If the horoscopes, eight characters, and elements of birth of the couple were compatible they would be blessed by prosperity, posterity, and good health. In contrast, if there was not compatibility the couple would be unhappy and their marriage filled with bad luck.

Once the birth dates are found in harmony the parents agreed to arrange the marriage. Then, the presentation of betrothal gifts would take place.

The third and fourth rites are carried out when parents of the would-be bride and groom would present gifts such as a jade scepter, a hairpin, biscuits, pieces of cloth, and tea leaves, which symbolized firm commitment, as a tea plant cannot be transplanted through a marriage adviser.

The fifth rite is often carried out after years of engagement and consists of choosing an auspicious day for the wedding.

The sixth rite is the most important as it is the wedding and consummation of the marriage. Before the wedding day, the exchange of gifts between the two families took place.

The gifts for the bride included red embroidered satin, gold jewelry, and money sealed in red packets. The parents of the bride would send her dowry of household utensils, furniture, jewelry, and a special item consisting of a bronze bucket and a pair of shoes to symbolize prosperity and harmony for the new couple.

After the wedding, the bride had to perform many rituals, such as walking on sackcloth, covering her head, drinking wine with the groom, sitting in bed, and being teased by relatives. These practices are no longer popular. After the wedding dinner, the married couple retired to their bedrooms or went on their honeymoon.

By the early 20th century, the wedding ceremony had become more elaborate. The bridegroom sent a sedan chair that arrived at the bride’s home accompanied by a group of Chinese musicians with gongs and trumpets.

Ancient Chinese Wedding
Ancient Chinese Wedding

The bride, dressed in a classical costume and headdress, is carried out to the sedan chair by the marriage broker since she was allowed to walk on the ground. It was believed that the ground was contaminated by evil spirits. Also, the bride would shed tears of sadness because she was leaving her parents' house.

On her arrival, the bridegroom shot three arrows into the air to rid the area of evil spirits. The bride was then carried into the house where the couple prayed and knelt before the gods and before the parents, offering tea and receiving red packets and jewelry.

Even the marriage broker received a red packet containing more than a banknote. The Chinese always regarded a single item as inauspicious because it symbolized loneliness. Happiness in Chinese culture comes in doubles. As a result, the red packet should contain at least two notes.

Following the tea ceremony the sumptuous wedding dinner hosted by the parents, the couple would retire into their bedroom where a pair of elaborately carved long feng (dragon and phoenix) candles were lit symbolizing a good, auspicious union. It was believed that if the candles burnt off at the same time the couple would live until old age together.

Traditional Chinese wedding
Traditional Chinese wedding

Otherwise, one of them would die earlier the long one symbolizing a male and the feng a female.

These marriage customs were carried out within and outside of China during the early 20th century.

Modern Chinese Wedding

Modern weddings that are based on tradition can almost be as elaborate as in the past.

Many Chinese people living abroad still follow tradition and choose an auspicious time and day for their wedding. However, the current context of traditional practices has been streamlined.

From the day the couple met and fell in love to the time they decide to marry they may host a dinner for the exchange of engagement rings in the presence of parents and friends.

Weddings of the rich still tend to be elaborate and extravagant but an average wage earner tends to host a simple wedding dinner or reception.

Marriage brokers still operate in some Asian countries although their role in marriages is different from the past.

They work in matchmaking agencies helping people who have difficulties in finding a marriage partner or lack the opportunity to meet the right partner.

These agencies introduce the couples to one another and do not analyze the suitability of birth dates or other traditional metrics. Instead, they use computers to match those with shared interests along with similar family backgrounds.

Chinese wedding in modern times
Chinese wedding in modern times

The tradition of the bridal gift to the groom is not common among modern couples, but the bride may help in paying for the banquet, which is sometimes seen as the bride’s gift to the groom.

The bride is still taken from her house by the groom and the groomsmen, but today, in some cases, they will leave in decorated cars.

The wedding feast is probably considered the most important part of wedding celebrations today. This is more of an event for the parents than any other part of the wedding.

The menu includes about twelve courses as follows: appetizer, roast pig, shark fin soup, fried rice or noodles, dessert, and fresh food. Each of the guests at the feast presents a monetary gift to the couple.

As the soup is served, the couple goes from table to table toasting each guest.

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 relatives, form a line at the door to thank departing guests for coming.

The variety in Chinese weddings is based on the cultural differences among provinces, marriage laws that have been created, and the influence of Western culture and ideology.

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