I went to my first Chinese wedding during a business trip to China back in 2007. The colleague who invited me said “maybe you find it interesting”. He was not wrong; the party was a fascinating pageant of unfamiliar Chinese customs mixed with western traditions which followed each other incomprehensibly one Saturday afternoon. Many years later, after attending several weddings, ranging from lavish extravagant parties to very simple celebrations, I’ve become familiar enough to know what content is traditional and expected and what is personal to the couple. Moreover, after nearly 15 years of rapid development of the country, it’s interesting to see how fashions and ideas of marriage in Chinese couples have changed.
I rode to the bride’s house in front of a cavalcade of black cars. A cameraman hung out the back of my vehicle with a very large camcorder. We wound our way through Beijing, him filming as we drove down roads of new modern buildings. He paused the camera when we turned into pot-holed streets or passed rundown shops. Behind us the groom’s car was adorned with ribbons and flowers. ‘Do you do that in the UK?’ my colleague asked me, pointing to the decorated car. ‘We have the ribbons I reply, but not the large bunch of flowers blocking the drivers view.’
After arriving at the bride’s house, the groom had to answer three questions before being allowed inside. There was a lot of laughter among the party lined up behind him and listening in from the concrete stairwell. Eventually he is allowed in to search for her shoes that have been hidden, somewhere in the small room, inside.
Finding the brides hidden shoes is a custom that is unique to China. It is thought to originate from the groom needing to verify her beauty, whom he may not have previously met, by inspecting the size of her feet. Big feet were considered shameful, whether they were bound and how she bound them directly affected her marriageability, so he should spare no effort to find wedding shoes and personally put them on for her.
Another story is that the bride cannot take away the mother’s family dust, so the wedding shoes must be brand new and the groom personally carry the bride out of the house – preferably into a waiting sedan chair.
We crowded inside where there was a mall reception of little snacks. The parents and a few other relatives were served tea by the bride and groom. This ancient ceremony symbolizes the union of the two families. It was once a very formal and important tradition with many steps and serving etiquette necessary to provide the right respect to each family member. Following the tea ceremony, the dowry would have been given.
Today the gifts are usually in the form of money given in red packets. At one wedding, I saw them opened by a couple behind a desk who counted the cash and made a record in a book of how much each guest had given.
The tea ceremony and gift giving used to happen at the engagement, or on the day of the wedding. Nowadays, the legal part of the wedding is performed in a government office. Being on a workday it is quite separate from the celebration which can be weeks or, in a case of two friend’s weddings, over a year later. Consequently, the tea and gift giving are now observed as part of the party rather than the wedding day.
The actual wedding is purely administrative, devoid of any romance or ceremony. A foreigner told me that on his wedding day, one hot Wednesday afternoon, they’d arrived at the government office on bicycles to get the forms processed, checked, stamped, and finally delivered across an official’s desk. ‘The marriage certificates, he said, were handed over with the same impassivity as the post office issuing a tax disk.”
The most important part of any wedding is the photographs. These are usually taken weeks before the wedding party. The bride and groom dress in various costumes and suits either in studios, set up with props and backgrounds of fake buildings or even a lake, or at attractive locations in China or abroad; Downton Abbey became popular before the pandemic. On the beaches of Sanya or Qingdao and outside the historic churches in Tianjin there always queues of couples waiting in their hired wedding outfits for their pictures to be taken by a crew of professional photographers.
At the first wedding I attended, the wedding pictures were displayed on projector screens in a continuously scrolling PowerPoint presentation. Unlike the choreographed group shots that are taken in the UK of bridesmaids and best man, his family, her family, then friends, the official Chinese wedding shots are usually only of the happy couple.
There is no hen or stag night tradition or whip round at work to get a present or card. The actual wedding is an almost secret affair, with no mention of it outside of the family.
The traditional colour for the wedding dress in China is red, but it’s more common to see the bride in a large fluffy western style white dress. The groom invariably wears a suit, modern rather than top hat and tails and typically mixed with a flamboyant coloured shirt and tie. Surprisingly, few others dress up. There is no tradition of Bridesmaids or Best man or Ushers, so far these roles are not being copied from western weddings; its only about the couple,. Even after attending several weddings, I am still surprised to see the other guests, sporting jeans and tee shirts. Even the parents of the couple are normally casually dressed.
Traditional Chinese wedding clothes are not currently popular but with a revival of interest in Hanfu clothing among young people it’s possible this may change. The fiancé of a friends nephew, who plans to marry next year, has said she wants a Chinese wedding dress. With 3000 years of culture to mine there should be a lot of interesting and unique choices to pick from
The party usually happens in a large hotel. The more popular venues will spend each Saturday or Sunday morning preparing the flowers, balloons, ribbons, the PA system, red carpets, display screens and table decorations ready for the banquet. The bride and Groom’s arrival should be accompanied by very loud firecrackers. At the last wedding attended, the fireworks were replaced by confetti, the former now banned in many cities due to the pollution.
Other than the banquet meal and heavy drinking there are few traditions to be observed -there is no set food items. Usually, the bride and groom will enter into the banquet to a fanfare. At one banquet they actually played the wedding march. Many venues set up an arch of flowers or balloons and a catwalk leading to the stage at the front. Its from here that speeches from the couple are given and some toasting. The main event, other than eating a lot, is going from table to table toasting each person in turn. It’s an excuse to drink a lot and there are always men on each table toasting each other making the most of the free alcohol.
In the grander wedding parties, the meal extends all afternoon. In addition to the tea ceremony, there are entertainment and activities appropriated from the west. There might be wedding cake cutting, a pyramid of glasses to fill with champagne, the lighting of candles, a bouquet of flowers thrown to a group of single girls, or toys thrown from the stage to a throng of kids. Sometimes there is a compere and dry ice and thumping music to introduce more speeches, declarations of love or the pronouncement of vows – all videoed for prosperity.
Ms Hong, a colleague, unusually decided on a more traditional wedding, choosing to hire their outfits from the Ming dynasty. Despite the difference of style, the traditions of the day were much the same as other weddings with a procession through the streets of the city not with cars but with a pair of dancing lions and costumed pole bearers carrying the bride in a Sedan. After arriving at the party however, she still changed into the more usual white dress.
Wen Wen, the daughter of a close friend, was the bride of the latest wedding party I was invited to. In the taxi to the venue we collected a sprightly great grandmother and great aunty and we discussed their weddings along with the driver’s that had all occurred between 40 and 60 years ago. In their days, they all told me, a quiet meal at home with the family was the most that could be afforded.
Ms Lui,, sent me a copy of one of the few photographs of herself and her husband taken 30 years ago to mark the occasion. By the 1990s living standards were improving and western dress had become fashionable. The bow tie and dress coat he is wearing more traditional men’s attire then you would see now. The simplicity of the picture, taken in a studio with hired clothes, a blank backcloth and a vase of flowers, is a huge contrast to Wen Wen’s full on celebration today.
I had been invited via an animated invite received through the WeChat messaging App. The location was a large building built especially for wedding parties on an industrial estate where several wedding related businesses were grouped. Inside had been decorated in a style called ‘Jardin des Tuileries’.
The large studio was artfully filled with fake flowers, giant butterflies, and balloons. At one end was a stage with a Cinderella style castle behind, and on each side, a massive TV screen displaying a video story of the couple that had been taken at an earlier time. The first part of the party took place in an adjoining room made to look like a Church, complete with rows of pews and stain-glass windows. A mock wedding ceremony took place where the bride, dressed in white, was led down the aisle by her father, accompanied by the theme tune from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Rings were exchanged, tearful monologs delivered, and a white gloved assistant adjusted the brides dress and indicated to the audience when to stand or clap. The whole event was recorded with a paparazzi of cameras, sound engineers and a lighting rig.
When we returned to the banquet room the food and drinking started. Later there was a session for photographs with the couple on stage before the entertainment began. This wedding had all the Chinese elements of a tea ceremony and the toasting, as well as the western add-ons of cake cutting, balloons falling from the ceiling, the champagne pyramid of glasses being filled from a rising podium and an actual fairy tale show performed on stage by the two stars.
By the end of the party the whole days filming had been edited and was shown on the big screen as a grand finale while a lucky draw gave out prizes to the guests.
The weddings finish early in the afternoon, often suddenly. People hurry quickly away. There is no disco or evening do and usually no honeymoon. Its all over by tea time.
Not many weddings are as lavish as Wen Wen’s. A large number will be more modest affairs, but there is enough demand, for the company that organised it, to have four rooms decorated in different fantasy styles for the sole purpose of holding these events. The company organises the whole day’s package including the pre party photography and hire of outfits. When you see the number of wedding shops in the shopping streets and the lines of couples on the beaches, outside of churches and posing in front of historic vistas for their photographs, it shows how big an industry wedding organising has become.
Whereas the trend since China opened up in the 1980s has been for increasingly extravagant and showy weddings, in the UK, Church weddings and the pageantry that goes with them have been waning in popularity for years; according to the Office for National Statistics, falling by 50% since the 1980s. Western weddings have become more personalised with greater choices of venues, catering and clothes options. Perhaps Chinese weddings will go the same way, with the next generation starting to explore their own rich culture instead of parodying the west, building in more of their unique and ancient heritage to create something more of their own.