Chinese Wedding Tradition, Custom, Preparation, Engagement, Procedure, and Rite.
What is a traditional Chinese wedding?
A traditional Chinese wedding includes a series of customs and rites, from preparation and engagement to the wedding and after-wedding ceremonies.
The complete traditional Chinese wedding culture, the Three Letters and Six Etiquettes was officially formed in Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC).
Three Letters are formal documents for engagement, betrothal gifts, and the wedding ceremony.
Six Etiquettes include the proposal, ask for info, divination, send betrothal gifts, decide wedding date, and the wedding ceremony.
Some details have been simplified or adjusted throughout history, however, main procedures have been inherited quite well.
Chinese matchmaking and matchmaker system in history.
Unlike today's free love, in ancient history, matchmaking was the most important way to bring about a marriage, mostly arranged by parents and matchmakers.
The resemblance of the couple's family background has been the key factor.
In ancient Chinese culture, the similarity of a couple’s social status and family background was one of the most important considerations for marriage; this idea is still popular among some people nowadays.
Hence, professional matchmakers usually would collect info about people of proper ages and with resembling 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 disappear.
However, for couples that are introduced by other people, they still would express their gratitude, using gifts or money, for their matchmakers.
Fans Used in Traditional Chinese Wedding, Photo from Yunduan Yinxiang.
Chinese traditional wedding engagement process.
Proposal and Agreement of the Marriage
If the man's parents are happy with the matchmaker's suggestions, they would prepare some gifts, and ask the matchmaker to propose to the girl's parents.
After the girl's parents agreed, they will provide certain information about the girl, including name, birth date, and other required details, which the matchmaker will bring back to the man's.
Then, they will take the new couples’ names and birth dates 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, and choose an auspicious date, usually through divination, for the engagement ceremony.
In every process, the matchmaker would bring ritual gifts, and the most ancient was wild geese. Later, more valuable presents were added, based on one's family status and fortune.
Embraced Swan Geese Jade Pendant of Liao Dynasty (907 — 1125) — Inner Mongolia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Engagement and Betrothal Ceremony
On the Engagement Day, 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, gold jewelry, etc.
Meanwhile, they also would bring two official documents, one in regard to the announcement of the engagement (Betrothal Letter or Pin Shu), another lists all of the betrothal gifts that they brought (Gift Letter or Li Shu).
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 goodwill to the new couple’s happy marriage.
This engagement rite is still widely implemented in China nowadays, with slightly different details.
Part of Common Betrothal Gifts (Pin Li) of Rich Families of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279)
Gold Pendant of Robe
How to choose an auspicious date for a Chinese wedding?
After the engagement day, the new couple's parents would choose a good date through divination to hold the wedding ceremony, based on the new couple's birth dates and Zodiac Signs.
In traditional Chinese culture, March, June, July, and November of the Chinese Calendar were not good 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”.
Today, many Chinese couples still choose their wedding date through divination.
Hanzi "Xi" (Double Happiness), Using of it is the Representative of Chinese Wedding.
Wedding bed decoration in traditional Chinese weddings.
Arranging the new couple's bed or An Chuang is an important tradition in Chinese weddings.
Some days before the wedding ceremony, the new couple’s bed should be set up and decorated with brand new red bedclothes; date, peanut, longan, and lotus seed 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 their “lucky fates”: those who have healthy parents, many siblings, a happy marriage, and many children (now it is not this strict).
Traditional Chinese Wedding Bed Decorated with Date, Peanut, Longan, and Lotus Seed.
After the wedding bed is settled up, usually not allow other people to sit or sleep on it, especially pregnant women and people in the mourning period.
In some places, toddlers can play on the bed for a while before the wedding date.
Besides the bed, the new couple's bedroom and halls for their wedding ceremony will be decorated as well, mostly using red color, and with auspicious decorations.
Traditional Chinese Wedding Ceremony Hall, Photo from Duke Landao.
A brief introduction to the Chinese wedding dress.
Chinese wedding dress includes all attires from all historic dynasties, and followed strict hierarchy regulation in ancient history.
Today, people can choose whichever style they like and change for several times as they want to, from western-style bridal gowns to modern designed cheongsam, or traditional outfits from history.
Generally, however, the groom and bride outfits would match each other; for instance, from the same dynasty and same hierarchy for those wearing traditional clothes.
Wedding Costumes of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC)
Chinese wedding ceremony — auspicious rites, customs, and meanings.
Sending of Dowry
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.
Combing Hair Rites
One day before or on the wedding day, the new couple would have their hair combed by a lucky 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 four times, representing longevity, loyalty, many children, and good luck.
Setting Off of the Groom's Team
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 best men group, relatives, and good friends, he will set off 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 had 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 weep 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.
Rites to Welcome Bride Home Using 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.
Afterward, 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 Traditional Chinese Wedding
After the new couple had arrived at the groom’s place, the most important ritual of a Chinese traditional wedding would be held.
Together, they would declare their dignified marriage.
Firstly, bow to heaven and earth, to worship and inform the whole universe and surroundings about their marriage.
Secondly, bow to parents, showing respect and gratitude for raising up the groom.
Thirdly, 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 marriage.
Afterward, 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.
Silver Belt Hook Carved with "Infinite Happiness, Unforgettable Love", Unearthed from Tomb of King Liu Fei (168 BC — 128 BC) — Nanjing Museum
Tea Ceremony in Chinese Wedding
The tea ceremony has been an important and necessary ritual in Chinese weddings, from ancient history to today.
Because tea trees can only grow from seeds, and cannot be transplanted, which made it the representative of unchanging love and eternal loyalty.
The tea ceremony of a traditional Chinese wedding usually is simple, the new couple serving tea to their parents, to show their gratitude for making this marriage happen, willingness to support and take care of each other, and as a symbol of officially becoming a family.
The timing of a tea ceremony in a Chinese wedding differs, some serve the bride's parents before the groom takes back the bride then serve the groom's parents after the whole wedding ceremony, some serve all parents during the official rites.
To sum up, flexible timing, with eternal respect and gratitude.
Part of Wedding Porcelain Sets for Emperor Tongzhi (1862 — 1874) — Palace Museum
Follow Up Ceremonies in Traditional Chinese Wedding
Finally, the new couple would be sent to their own room and sit on the newly arranged bed.
In 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 history, however, a big wedding banquet after the whole ceremony has been an important, necessary tradition.
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
Ending ceremony of a Chinese wedding — Hui Men.
On the next or the third day after the wedding ceremony, the new couple would go back to the bride’s parents’ place with even numbers of 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 rite.
The new couple usually would worship the bride’s ancestors, bow and serve tea to her parents, and have dinner with them.
Generally, they would leave before the sunset.
After this Hui Men ceremony, the whole wedding is considered completed successfully.
Auspicious Decorations of Traditional Chinese Wedding, Photo from Yijiangnan.
What to wear and what to give at a Chinese wedding?
Attire to Attend a Chinese Wedding
To attend today's Chinese weddings, unless the new couple informed dress codes in advance, guests usually don't have very strict requirements. Warm color clothes are highly recommended.
But red and white color clothes are impolite to wear to a Chinese wedding since those two are the colors that the bride would wear. Red for traditional style dresses and white for western-style wedding gowns.
Gift for Chinese Wedding
Money in a red envelop is the most common gift for Chinese weddings today, which the new couple can use to buy whatever they want.
The amount of numbers depends on one's closeness to the new couple, usually auspicious integer numbers.
A decent gift is also an option, usually from very good friends or family that know this is the gift that the bride or groom actually wanted, and it is not a cheap one.
Red Envelopes with Money inside the Most Common Gift in Chinese Weddings.
Auspicious words to say in a Chinese wedding.
Besides congratulations, there are some ancient idioms and poems with beautiful meanings to say or write to a newly wedding couple, to express one's sincere greeting, and to praise their sweet love.
花好月圆: Blooming flowers and full moon, representing beautifulness and perfection.
佳偶天成: Perfect match like is arranged by divines.
珠联璧合: Gathering of pearls and jade, represents beautiful and happy couples.
共度爱河: Live in the river of love, meaning the combination of a loving couple.
天作之合: Perfect couple arranged by heaven.
凤凰于飞: Phoenixes flying in the sky, representing harmonious conjugal love.
Phoenix Shape Golden Decorations of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Changzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
举案齐眉: Couple of mutual respect and love.
百年好合: Lifetime of conjugal felicity.
同心同德: Alike heart, faith, and goal.
白头偕老: Live happily together until hair turned grey.
比翼双飞: Love birds Biyi flying in the sky, representing blessed couple support each other in life and careers.
天长地久: Eternal as heaven and earth.
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