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.
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.