Wedding customs in Chinese culture begin long before the actual wedding. Here the matchmaking, betrothal as well as the sending and receiving of dowry make up important aspects of the wedding. Likewise the festivities and welcoming rituals like the bride’s visit to her paternal home can extend several days after the actual wedding. Like the culture of China, its wedding rituals and traditions are many-layered, symbolic and beautifully detailed.
Preparations for the wedding
Formal preparations for a Chinese wedding can be considered to begin with the matchmaking process. In the earlier days, a family would hire a matchmaker who would go to another family’s home to seek a proposal. Then both families would consult a fortune teller who analyzed the man and woman’s birth dates, times, names and other vital information. If both were deemed compatible, a marriage deal would be brokered. Even though now most Chinese young people find their own life partners, the engagement process still includes many of the traditional customs. The most important of these is the sending of betrothal gifts which is the modern equivalent of the engagement ceremony. According to this, the groom’s family sends gifts to the bride’s family. These include food and cakes. Once the bride’s family accepts the gifts, the wedding cannot be called off easily. Then the bride’s family reciprocates by sending the bridal dowry roughly a week before the wedding. The bridal dowry consists of the gifts that the bride brings to her husband’s home after marriage. In the earlier days, the value of the dowry used to determine a woman’s status in her new household.
In the early hours of the morning, preferably before daybreak, the bride is invited to eat rice with her siblings and parents. This is a farewell meal, the last meal taken at her parents’ home before she is married off since according to Chinese traditions, the bride belongs to the husband family after marriage. After this the bride would be decked up in her wedding finery. The veiling of the bride by her parents is an important ritual of this stage. The traditional Chinese bride was dressed in a heavily embroidered and beaded red silk rainbow robe and on her head she wore a beaded phoenix crown covered by a red wedding headscarf and decorated at the corners with beaded tassels. The rainbow robes and phoenix crown were in the nature of official costume worn by empresses for state events; modern brides however are increasingly adopting the Western white wedding gown even though red is the traditional color of Chinese weddings.
In the meantime the groom’s side – including his family, brothers and friends - leaves to fetch the bride and take along red tray with raw meat (or canned pork legs), oranges, dried longan, red dates and lotus seeds. The tray also contains gifts for the bride, her parents and sometimes extended family members. Upon arriving at the bride’s house, the groom may have to beg and bribe the sisters or friends of the bride with small gifts or red envelopes stuffed with money so as to be allowed to take his bride. Before leaving her home, the bride and groom bow before the bride’s parents. In the past, the bride would leave for her husband’s home in a sedan chair and accompanied with a lot of fanfare and blaring music. While the celebrations still exist, now she prefers to go to her marital home in a car done up with wedding decorations.
After arriving at the groom’s home, the couple pray at the groom’s family’s home altar or at a local temple. They bow to heaven and earth after which they bow before the groom’s parents and then to each other. This constitutes the the Three Prayers ceremony of the traditional Chinese wedding ceremony which is based on the Taoist philosophy. Taoists believed in the power of heaven and earth to witness important events on earth. It was also believed that a parent or family elder must acknowledge a union for it to be official.
In modern Chinese families, sometimes the Three Prayers ceremony is abridged or entirely done away with in order to get on with the traditional wedding tea ceremony. At the groom’s home, the couple offers tea to their elders including the groom’s parents. Also during this ceremony, the bride is formally introduced to all the members of the groom's family. Acceptance of the tea is confirmation that the family has welcomed the bride into the groom’s family. The order of service usually begins with the groom’s parents, and then follow the grandparents, grand-uncles and grand-aunties, uncles and aunties, elder brothers and sisters and finally the cousins. The tea set in the bride's dowry is used for the ceremony. In very traditional family, the young couple is required to serve tea whilst kneeling down. Most modern family only requires them to bow while serving tea as a mark of respect for elders. After drinking the tea, the tea ceremony gifts for the bride and groom are presented on the serving plate. The gifts are usually in the form of red packets or jewellery. The bride and groom in turn present gifts to the younger siblings and cousins who helped them serve the tea.
The next stage of the Chinese wedding ceremony is marked by the newlywed couples’ visit to the bride’s home. Traditionally the bride’s home visit used to take place three days after the Chinese wedding ceremony. In modern times though, practical considerations have resulted in all the necessary events being compressed into a single day. After the tea ceremony the bride undergoes a change of dress and this now suffices to symbolize the passing of three days! The bride’s younger brother arrives with the traditional oil basket filled with toiletries, perfumed oils and make-up. He then escorts his sister and her new husband to the bride’s home. In some Chinese weddings, roast pig or roast pork is accompanied with the gifts for the bride’s parents which could also include traditional items like tangerines, oranges popped rice and sesame rolls, peanut chewy candies, bean paste cookies – all signifying good fortune for the couple. The highpoint of the visit to the bride’s home is the lunch followed by the traditional tea ceremony. During the bride's home visit, a sweet soup with lotus seeds, dried longan, red dates and rice balls is also served to wish the couple a sweet harmonious marriage.
The wedding banquet forms the final stage of the Chinese wedding ceremony. However if the newlyweds are going for a Church ceremony, it is usually included after the bride’s home visit and before the evening banquet. The wedding reception is more of a celebration with family, friends and other guests rather than a ritual. Guests raise a toast to the new couple and partake of traditional food and festivities.