Chinese Traditional Wedding — Custom, Preparation, Engagement, Procedure and Rite
The Chinese Traditional wedding ceremony includes a series of rites that were set since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC).
Some of the etiquettes have been simplified or adjusted throughout history, however, some main procedures have been inherited quite well.
Wedding Costumes of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC)
Before the Wedding Ceremony in Tradition of China
Resemblance of Background and Importance of Matchmaker
In old times, marriage was arranged by parents and matchmakers.
In ancient Chinese culture, the similarity of a couple’s social status and family background was one of the most important consideration; this ideology is still popular among some people nowadays.
Hence, professional matchmakers usually would find people of proper ages and with resemble social status, as well as their basic requirements to the future spouses. After having found a good match, the matchmaker would talk with the man’s parents first.
If a person wanted to marry someone he/she already knew, he or she still needed to get the parents' approval first, and then find a matchmaker to propose to the beloved one's parents.
Nowadays, young people usually choose their partners on their own, which made this step gradually disappeared. However, for couples that are introduced by other people, they still would express their gratitude for their matchmakers.
Agreement of the Marriage
After both sides’ parents showed interest to the matchmaker’s suggestion, the man’s parents would prepare some gifts, visit the woman’s parents and offer the proposal.
After all the parents agreed, the matchmaker would take the new couples’ names and birthdays to get divined and see if it's lucky for them to get married.
If the result was positive, they would inform the woman’s parents that the marriage is officially settled.
Engagement Day in Chinese Traditional Wedding
On the Engagement Day (usually a lucky date chosen through divination), the man’s parents would bring Betrothal Presents or money (Pin Li), to the woman’s parents.
The presents vary in different historical eras, geographical places, social status and financial situations, some common examples are tea, fabric, food, jewelry, etc.
Meanwhile, they also would bring two official documents, one in regard to the announcement of the engagement, another lists all of the betrothal gifts that they brought.
Some people also exchange their family trees in order to know each other better.
On the same day or a few days later, the woman’s parents would prepare some gifts in return, to express kind gesture and good will to the new couple’s happy marriage.
This engagement rite is still widely implemented in China nowadays, with slightly different details.
Chosen of the Wedding Date
After the engagement day, the new couple's parents would choose a good date, through divination, to hold the wedding ceremony.
In traditional Chinese culture, March, June, July and November of the Chinese Calendar are ominous for getting married.
June implies half and incomplete, July is the month of ghost (because the Ghost Festival is on the 15th of July), March and November have unlucky homophonic meanings as “separation” and “unfulfilled”.
Nowadays, many Chinese couples still choose their wedding date through divination.
Chinese Hanzi "Xi" (Double Happiness), Using of it is the Representative of Wedding.
Arranging of the New Couple's Bed
Some days before the wedding, the new couple’s bed should be set up and decorated with brand new red bedclothes; peanuts, nuts, longans would be scattered on the new bed, which are the representatives of happiness, fortune, and many children in Chinese culture.
People who arrange the new bed are chosen based on the “lucky fate”: those have healthy parents, many siblings, a happy marriage, and many children (now it is not this strict).
Before the wedding day, now some people do it on the wedding day, the bride’s parents would send dowry to the groom (this varies in different historical stages, geography, social status and financial situations).
The dowry has been an important representative of the bride’s family background, social status, and how much her parents cared about her well being.
Official Chinese Traditional Wedding Day
On the wedding day, firstly, the new couple would have their hair combed by an elder who has healthy parents, siblings, a good marriage, and many children (now it is not that strict).
This rite needs to use a new comb to comb their hair for four times, representing the longevity, loyalty, many children, and good luck.
Then the groom would inform his ancestors and parents that he would be welcoming his beautiful bride with a bridal sedan chair, now with cars.
Together with his relatives and friends, he then would go to the bride’s place to take her home.
Exquisite Bridal Sedan Chair of the late Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Zhejiang Museum
Tears of the Bride and Her Family on the Wedding Day
After the groom having arrived and met with his beautiful bride, they would bid farewell to the bride’s parents when the bride usually would cry sadly.
In old times when the marriage was arranged by parents, many brides might have never met their grooms before. Moreover, the transportation was not as convenient as today; if someone married far away, she probably would never go back and see her parents again. So it was natural for brides to cry on their wedding day.
Nowadays, people get married freely to the one that they chose on their own, and they can go back and visit their parents whenever they want; however, still, many brides and their parents cry on the wedding day before she leaves the family.
Auspicious Rites and the Irreversible Routes
When the new couple leaves the bride’s home, and before they walk into the groom's place, people would sprinkle rice into the sky in front of them, meaning their new life together would be happy, rich and with many children. Nowadays, petals and colorful, shining paper are more frequently used.
Afterwards, the groom would take his bride back to his parents. Importantly, they would use another route that is absolutely different from the one that the groom came to take the bride; this means this marriage is irreversible.
Nowadays, this rule is still strictly followed in a Chinese wedding ceremony by many people.
Ancient Candlesticks for Chinese Traditional Wedding
Declaration Rites in Chinese Traditional Wedding
After the new couple having arrived at the groom’s place, the most important rite of a traditional Chinese wedding would be held.
Together, they would declare their dignified marriage.
First, the new new couple would bow to the heaven and earth, to worship the whole universe and surroundings.
Second, they would bow to parents, showing respect and gratitude for raising up the groom.
Thirdly, they bow to each other, meaning that they would trust the rest of their lives with the future spouse from then on. This shows the most important commitment of a marriage.
Afterwards, they are officially married.
Today, if a couple chooses to hold a traditional Chinese wedding, the Three Bow Ceremony is still one of the most important rites that they would follow.
Follow Up Ceremonies in Traditional Chinese Wedding
After the saint declaration of the marriage, the new couple would serve tea to the groom’s parents, showing their gratitude again for making everything happen and willingness to support and take care of each other.
Finally, the new couple would be sent to their own room and sitting on the newly arranged bed.
In the history, both bride and groom would cut off a strand of their hair, put and tie them together, and save it properly. Since the hair has been considered as one important part of the body in ancient Chinese culture; binding their hair together means the new couple would become a whole from now on. This ceremony now is mostly abolished.
Rite of drinking cross-cupped wine, however, has been inherited, as a means of expressing intimacy.
Some other rites differed among geographical places and throughout the history of China, though having a wedding feast with relatives and friends has always been necessary.
Unearthed Bronze Bind-Cups (He Jin Bei) of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) that used for A Couple to Drink Cross-Cupped Wine on Their Wedding — Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
After the Official Wedding Ceremony
Usually, on the next or the third day after the traditional Chinese wedding, the new couple would go back to the bride’s parents’ place with some gifts, to tell her parents that she is safe and sound or to talk a little about her new husband.
In old times, this may be the last time for the bride to see her parents (if they lived far away), so it was a very important ceremony.
The new couple usually would worship the bride’s ancestors, bow and serve tea to her parents, and have dinner with them.
Usually, they would leave before the sun set.
Part of Wedding Porcelain Sets for Emperor Tongzhi (1862 — 1874) — Palace Museum
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