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Chinese Marriage Customs

Chinese marriage was systemized into custom in the Warring States period (402-221 B.C.). Due to vast expanse and long history, there are different customs to follow in different places, although they are generally the same. Visitors still get chance to witness traditional marriages in the countryside.

In the ancient times, it was very important to follow a basic principle of Three Letters And Six Etiquettes, since they were essential to a marriage.

Three letters include Betrothal Letter, Gift Letter and Wedding Letter. Betrothal Letter is the formal document of the engagement, a must in a marriage. Then, a gift letter is necessary, which will be enclosed to the identified girl’s family, listing types and quantity of gifts for the wedding once both parties accept the marriage. While the Wedding Letter refers to the document which will be prepared and presented to the bride’s family on the day of the wedding to confirm and commemorate the formal acceptance of the bride into the bridegroom’s family.

Six Etiquettes

Proposing: If an unmarried boy’s parents identify a girl as their future daughter-in-law, then they will find a matchmaker. Proposal used to be practiced by a matchmaker. The matchmaker would formally present his or her client’s request to the identified girl’s parents.

Birthday matching: If the potential bride’s parents did not object the marriage, the matchmaker would ask for the girl’s birthday and birthhour record to assure the compatibility of the potential bride and bridegroom. If the will-be-married’s birthdays and birthhours does not conflict according to astrology, the marriage will step into the next stage. Once there is any conflict, meaning the marriage will bring disasters to the boy’s family or the girl’s, the marriage stops here.

Presenting betrothal gifts: Once birthdays match, the bridegroom’s family will then arrange the matchmaker to present betrothal gifts, enclosing the betrothal letter, to the bride’s family.

Presenting wedding gifts: After the betrothal letter and betrothal gifts are accepted, the bridegroom’s family will later formally send wedding gifts to the bride’s family. Usually, gifts may include tea, lotus seeds, longan, red beans, green beans, red dates, nutmeg, oranges, pomegranate, lily, bridal cakes, coconuts, wine, red hair braid, money box and other stuffs, depending on local customs and family wealth.

Picking auspicious wedding date: An astrologist or astrology book will be referred to selecting an auspicious date to hold the wedding ceremony.

Wedding ceremony: On the selected day, the bridegroom departures with a troop of escorts and musicians, playing happy music all the way to the bride’s home. After the bride is clustered to the bridegroom’s home, the wedding ceremony begins.

Different with the West, the dominant color on traditional Chinese wedding is red, almost every thing. Chinese tend to apply red to add happy atmosphere in such big days.

At dawn on the wedding day, after a bath in water infused with various grapefruits, the bride puts on new clothes and wares a pair of red shoes, waiting for the so called good luck woman to dress her hair in the style of a married woman. Her head will be covered with a red silk veil with tassels or bead strings that hang from the phoenix crown. Then she waits her future husband to escort her home, with married women talking around her how to act to be a good wife.

On the other hand, the bridegroom prepares himself to receive his wife. He gets capped and dressed in a long gown, red shoes and a red silk sash with a silk ball on his chest, the groom knelt at the ancestral altar as his father put a cap decorated with cypress leaves on his head to declare his adulthood and his family responsibility.

Then the bridegroom set out to receive his bride. Usually he will be crowded among his friends as escorts and musicians who play happy music all the way to radiate happiness. Dancing lions, if any, precede the troop. In the ancient time, a bridal sedan chair (or a decorated donkey due to poverty or bad traffic) would be used to serve the bride. There will be a child carrying a bridal box among the people, reflecting the bridegroom’s expectation to have a child in the near future. The most interesting part of the reception really takes place at the doorstep of the bride’s residence, heavily guarded by the bridesmaids or sisters of the bride. It is customary for the bridesmaid to give the bridegroom a difficult time before he is allowed to enter. Usually wisdom and courage and his friends will help the bridegroom to succeed in the quizzes. After passing the tests and singing for his bride, the bridegroom is finally allowed to meet his bride. However, there is one more pass, he has to negotiate with the bridesmaid and sisters of the bride to distribute them red packets, with auspicious money enclosed in, in order to take his bride home.

Before the bride departures to his bridegroom’s home, she will be carried by the good luck woman to the sedan chair. On her way to the chair, a sister of her will shield her with a red parasol and another threw rice at the sedan chair, at the back of which hung a sieve and a metallic mirror that were believed to protect the bride from evil. The bride has to cry to show that she does not want to leave her parents.

Then firecrackers will be set off to drive away evil spirits as the bride sits into the sedan chair. All along the way people make great efforts to avoid any inauspicious influence. For instance, the sedan chair is heavily curtained, so as to prevent the bride from seeing an unlucky sight, e.g. a widow, a well or even a cat. When the parading troop arrives at the bridegroom’s, firecrackers will be set off to hail the bride’s arrival. Before the sedan chair a red mat is placed so that the bride will not touch the bare earth. By the threshold a flaming stove and a saddle will be set up, the bride is required to step over, to avoid evils.

The wedding ceremony is the hottest point. The bride and bridegroom are led to the family altar, where the couple pays kotows to Heaven and Earth, the family ancestors and parents successively. Then they bow to each other and will be led to the bridal chamber. The ceremony proceeds under a director’s prompts and applauses of the audience.

Then there will be a grand feast for relatives and those who help in the wedding. The newlywed couple will resume to drink wedlock wine. Generally they are required to cross their arms to sip the wine and then exchange their cups to gulp down. They also will toast with guests to pay their thanks. Good wishes of the guests rush to the couple. However, well-intentioned people will try their best to fuddle the bridegroom who is dodging to avoid the embarrassing scene.

Teasing games in the bridal chamber: After night falls, the teasing games start. Usually all young men can participate except for the bride’s married brothers-in-law. Those funny and silly games will ease the tension, since in ancient times the newlyweds never met each other before the wedding! Most of the games require the shy couple to act like wife and husband. The festive atmosphere also promotes closeness among all the family members and the community beyond. There also will be other activities conducted by the bridegroom’s mother after the roaring laughter fades into the darkness.

Other Customary Practices

Preparing the bridal bed: A good luck man, usually having a nice family, will help to install the bridal bed in the right place in the bridal chamber on a selected day before the wedding day. Before the wedding, a good luck woman will arrange the bridal bed and scatter candies, lotus seeds, peanuts, beans and fruits of good meanings on the bed. Nobody is allowed to touch the bed until the couple enters the bridal chamber after the wedding ceremony. Children will then be invited onto the bed to bless fertility of the couple.

Dowry: Usually the bride’s dowry shall be sent to the bridegroom’s family by the day before the wedding day. Sometimes the dowry will be brought by the bride’s escorting troops on the wedding day to show off. Traditional dowry normally consists of items such as jewelry, embroidered beddings, kitchen utensils and furniture. The package of the dowry is always changing except those basic items of symbol. For example, dozens of years ago, sewing machine, bicycle, and recorder were musts in a marriage. Now, they are totally out of fashion.

Bride’s Return: Traditionally, the newlyweds are to return to visit the bride’s parents one or three days after the wedding. They will be hailed with a banquet and it is the bridegroom’s turn to suffer teasing of the bride’s relatives and friends. That is still well intentioned.

Traditional marriage customs lost its popularity due to the collapse of feudal marriage custom and its complexity. However, traditional marriage can still be seen in the countryside, despite innovations. Now, traditional marriage custom revives in some places and attracts will-be-couples.


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