cultura_principal

Chinese Wedding: Marriage in transition, values stay

Chinese Wedding is one of the most important events in one’s life and has to be taken seriously. New wedding styles are gradually becoming accepted, but retaining its traditionalistic roots.

Contributing Reporter
Xu Xuejun
A string of sharp firework explosions breaks the pre-dawn stillness in the early hours of the morning, waking people from their dreams: the groom and the wedding procession has arrived to pick up the bride. The bride is already waiting, having risen early to brush her hair, put on the makeup and dress up, looking forward to this important moment in her life. At the front shut gate, a long line of wedding cars stretches on. In the yard, the children have been waiting for a while, they are filling the air with their cheering, but only after the bridegroom takes out the red envelopes will they agree to open the door.

This is a description of a Chinese wedding, of the noise of fireworks and red signs with the Chinese character “double happiness” adorning the streets, of Chinese wedding tradition mixed with the flavour of modernity, but still preserving what makes it special – its liveliness and buzz and the ability to fascinate.

The Embedded Culture Values

The Chinese have always attached great importance to family and marriage. For the ancients, the concepts of “regulating one’s family” and “cultivating one’s moral character”, “governing the country” and “pacifying the world” were inseparable, held as the goals a gentleman should strive for. As a result, many associated etiquettes and ceremonies were developed. The wedding and marriage customs have been evolving with time, some replaced by new forms, others preserved to this day. They are an important part of the life of Chinese people, and are an expression of the people’s understanding of marriage as well as of their cultural views.

Marriage is one of the most important events in one’s life and has to be taken seriously. Before the wedding, the two sides concerned have to go through quite a number of procedures. Traditionally, the groom’s parents must first ask a matchmaker to visit the bride’s household to make the proposal of marriage and provide various information about the groom. Once the proposal was accepted, gifts would be delivered to the bride’s family to seal the betrothal and the date of the wedding would be agreed upon. This is akin to a modern engagement. People, no matter foreign or Chinese, both in the antiquity and in the present day, have always wanted to find a spouse with whom they can spend their life together. The question, therefore, of how to find that suitable match, and create a happy marriage, is not just a problem for the bride and groom to ponder, but is something that the parents on both sides take extremely seriously. For this reason people thought up all kinds of tests to measure the degree of compatibility between the two sides, for example by comparing the dates and time of birth and the Chinese Zodiac signs of the prospective bride and groom, which is similar to Western astrology.

The wedding ceremony and wedding customs hold an essential place in the life of every Chinese person.

After compatibility was confirmed, the wedding date had to be fixed. The Chinese attach great importance to numbers. The ancients determined whether a date was lucky or not by consulting an almanac, and organizing a wedding certainly required finding an auspicious date. Even though the modern Chinese are no longer such sticklers in that respect, getting a “good omen” is still extremely important. People often choose a date which holds certain meaning, for example an even numbered date implies being together as a couple, as well as happiness and harmony. Dates of special significance can also be chosen, for example, a birthday of the bride or groom, the date the bride and groom met, or even the 14th of February, Saint Valentine’s Day in Western tradition.

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The traditional wedding procession
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On the day of the wedding, the groom had to lead the wedding procession to meet and bring back the bride. The most important rite of the wedding ceremony, however, was when the bride and groom, dressed in red ceremonial robes, together kowtowed to Heaven and Earth, to their parents, and to each other. This signifies respect for Heaven and Earth, for the parents, and for each other. In the traditional worldview, the Heaven and Earth were the origin of all living things, the parents were the origin of life, and only after that came the individual. Therefore, when newlyweds were establishing a new household, they were obliged to express gratitude and reverence for the origin of life.

Chinese Wedding: Marriage in transition, values stay

Soon bear cherishable son

As the four words hóngzăo ‘jujube’, huāshēng ‘peanut’, guìyuán (also called lóngyăn) ‘longan’ and liánzĭ ‘lotus seed’ contain the Chinese characters zăo, shēng, guì, and zì, which are homophonous to the four-character phrase literally meaning ‘soon bear cherishable son’, jujubes, peanuts, longan, and lotus seeds are usually presented at the weddings as a blessing for the couple to have a lovely baby soon.

The Dynamic Chinese Wedding Content

Even though nowadays the newlyweds do not have to kneel down and kowtow, they must still serve tea to the older generation and bow to each other as an expression of respect. With the passage of time, the wedding customs in China have undergone great changes, and continuously absorb new things. For example, when the bride is being fetched, the traditional sounds of the so-na (a trumpet-like musical instrument) have been replaced by firecrackers and cheerful electronic music, the bride’s red headdress has changed to a white veil, and the flowery sedan chair carrying the bride has also been replaced with luxury sedan carswith silk ribbons and balloons tied to them.

Eighty-year old Granny Huang, a witness to the great changes that China has undergone, has also experienced wedding ceremonies of different times. She and her husband Grandad Zhang have already spent more than 50 years together, but she still remembers her simple but sweet wedding. “On the wedding day we borrowed twenty stools from our workplace, roasted two large bowls of unshelled peanuts and sunflower seeds, and bought five kilos of sweets. The friends and family who were invited to the wedding took up four tables, each table had four dishes and a soup, and we enjoyed a long and happy meal together.”

Zhang Rong, Granny Huang’s daughter, got married in 1982. On the wedding day the groom wore a blue Mao suit and the bride a red outfit. They two went to a photo studio, took a black and white portrait photo of themselves, stuck it onto their marriage certificate, and then invited their friends and family to their house for a meal – and the wedding was over and done with. Granny Huang had this to say about her daughter’s wedding: “For a marriage at that time, it was important to have ‘three things that turn’, that is, bicycle, watch, and sewing machine, as well as ‘one that makes sound’ – radio set. Nowadays this is nothing, but those were very high standards at that time”.

The new chinese wedding styles are gradually becoming accepted, but retaining its traditionalistic roots.

“Three things that turn and one that makes sound” of the 80s, “three electrical things and one with wheels” – television set, washing machine, refrigerator and bicycle of the 90s, “apartment, car, banknotes and university diploma” of the 21st century – these are the wedding wish lists of the different generations of newlyweds in China.

Now the time has come for Zhou Yong, grandson of Granny Huang, to get married. His 21st century wedding has a new style, preserving the joy and excitement traditional to a Chinese wedding, but fusing them with Western-style solemnity and the sense of holiness and purity. During the wedding banquet the red ribbons and the red signs with double-happiness character are everywhere, but the bride has added a white floor-length wedding gown to the joyful red cheongsam. During the wedding itself, the bride is slowly led out by her father, to the tune of the wedding march, towards the groom who is waiting ahead, as the guests impart their blessings.

The New Chinese Wedding Style: Your Style

There are more and more newlyweds nowadays, who, like Zhou Yong,choosing to hold Chinese and Western fusion-style weddings in hotels. The new wedding styles and concepts are gradually becoming accepted by everyone, and wedding ceremonies are continuously evolving, but retaining its traditionalistic roots. Some young people have even discarded the over-intricate and complicated rituals of traditional weddings, choosing instead to seek romance through a different style of wedding.

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When fetching the bride, the bridegroom’s foremost challenge is to persuade the bride to open the door.
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Some young people, for example, choose to go on a romantic wedding trip to enjoy the scenery of the great outdoors together. In a cycling wedding, the groom, with the bride riding as a passenger, speeds off on a bike, with family and friends behind cheering him on loudly. In a hot air balloon wedding, the newlyweds embrace tightly in the basket and throw down flower petals from the height of 40 metres, drawing surprised and envious looks. In a subway wedding, the groom leads the bride by hand onto a train where the passengers shower them with blessings and well-wishes while friends and family are waiting at each of the stops, where they then congratulate the couple stop by stop. In an underwater wedding, the newlyweds in scuba gear embrace and kiss underwater, a unique way to create special wedding memories. In addition, there are also many other different and unusual types of weddings – ice wedding, yacht wedding, bungee wedding, candlelight wedding and lawn wedding.

Lately, a lot of new wedding and marriage terminology has emerged: bare marriage, lightning-speed marriage, hidden marriage. These types of marriage, which were originally known by very few people, have been hyped up in films and TV dramas and gained popularity with the masses. A new era of marriages and weddings has been ushered in by modern newlyweds having the kinds of ceremonies they have longed for.

Of course, no matter whether it is a minimalist and individualistic wedding, a romantic and luxury one, or a traditional one which still preserves Chinese folk customs, and whether it is a bare marriage, a lightning marriage, or the most ordinary form of marriage, you can always feel the unique importance of marriage and family in Chinese culture. The wedding ceremony and wedding customs have always been one of the symbols of Chinese culture, and hold an essential place in the life of every Chinese person.

Chinese Wedding: Marriage in transition, values stay

The wedding wish lists of the different generations of newlyweds in China

八十年代要三转一响:收音机、自行车、缝纫机及手表

“Three things that turn and one that makes sound” : bicycle, watch, sewing machine and radio set of the 80s.

九十年代要三电一轮:电视机、洗衣机、电冰箱、自行车

“three electrical things and one with wheels”: television set, washing machine, refrigerator and bicycle of the 90s.

房子、车子、票子、学历本被称为“三子一本”

“apartment, car, banknotes and university diploma” of the 21st century in some areas.


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Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 32. Volume III. May 2014.

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