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Chinese Wedding Traditions - Marriage Customs and Rituals

For the Chinese people, the purpose of marriage is to continue the ancestral line and to create alliances between two families. There are certainly a lot of rituals. As the world changes, Chinese wedding traditions have evolved and changed as well. Unlike before, only a few traditions had survived the centuries and became a part of the modern day weddings. However, there are still families who wish to include traditional practices in their wedding plans.

In the ancient days, communication is done through letters which played a vital role in the betrothal and marriage process. Three letters being sent during those times. First is the request letter which serves as a confirmation of the formal arrangement of marriage. This is sent by the groom's family to the bride's family along with gifts. The second letter is called the gift letter. It serves as a gift record that describes the value of each gift. The third one is the letter which is given to the bride's family on the wedding day itself.

In some countries nowadays, the bride's family handles the expenses of the event because it is said to be the "bride's day". In some other countries, both the bride and the groom take care of the wedding expenses. However, for Chinese traditions, it is the "groom's day" when it comes to the customary. This means the groom's family handles all the festivities before, during and after the wedding. The bride, or her family, will not have to spend money on the wedding.

Before the Big Day

Chinese Couple - Wedding Traditions And Customs Before the wedding, the ritual is that the bride is isolated with her closest friends. In this custom, the bride-to-be symbolically mourns the loss of family and friends. On the big day, the bride is bathed in water which is infused with pomelo in order to cleanse her from bad influences.

Wedding Date and Chinese Customs

In terms of Chinese customs, a traditional Chinese couple is very picky when it comes to choosing the date for the event - it should be a lucky one. Most Chinese families choose a date which is according to the lunar calendar. Aside from that, they also make sure that the moon and stars are properly aligned on the chosen Chinese wedding date. The date chosen should also match the date of birth of the bride and groom, as well as the parents of them. In Chinese, wedding is “結婚”. The second character “婚” comprises the words “女” (woman) and “昏” (sunset time). Traditionally, Chinese will host the wedding ceremony around the sunset time. It is also customary that the couple should marry on the half-hour rather than at the top hour of their wedding day. In this way, the hands of the clock are moving up instead of down. This is associated with the belief of Chinese wedding traditions that the couple could begin their lives on an upswing if that custom is followed.

Chinese Wedding Traditions - The Colors

The color red plays a vital role in the wedding festivities of the Chinese people. Red is considered by then as a bold and lucky color. In addition to this, the color signifies love, prosperity and happiness; therefore, everything is in red when it comes to Chinese wedding customs - invitations, gift envelopes and the bride's dress. It is also important that the symbol for double happiness is placed on invitations, envelopes and venue decorations, and accessories.

A New Bed for the Couple

In traditional Chinese families, the parents of the couple usually provide a new bed complete with pillow cases, comforters, pillows and sheets. A night before the wedding, the groom is required to sleep on the bed and a young nephew will have to jump up and down the bed to give luck to the couple. As per the customary, it is said that this practice gives hope on the fertility of the couple and will make them produce an heir soon.

traditional Chinese wedding ceremony
A part of traditional Chinese wedding ceremony

A Traditional Chinese Wedding

On the big day, the couple will need to serve tea to both parents and family and guests. In return, they will be presented with jewelry and money placed in red envelopes.

Without any surprise, the bridal gown will be red in color when it comes to Chinese wedding traditions. Yet, the case is a bit different nowadays. There will usually be three different dresses for the bride for nowadays. The white dress with veil is worn during the ceremony. The second dress is a traditional Chinese bridal dress. It is usually used at the banquet. The last one is called the bride's going away dress. This dress is worn before the bride leaves the banquet.

The feast or banquet is an important part during the wedding. The banquets are to thank family and friends for the kindness they have shown throughout the years. Most feasts will serve a twelve course meal including delicacies like roasted pig and shark fin soup (Of course, people are more aware about the environment and they may not server shark fin today). Sometimes fried rice and abalone will also be served. Without any surprise, delicious desserts will also be served at the end of the wedding reception.

A post ritual for Chinese wedding traditions and customs happens after the day of the wedding. The bride should wake up early to honor ancestors of the groom's family. The idea is to "tell" the ancestors there is a new family member in the groom's family. On this day, the bride is formally introduced to the groom's family, relatives and friends. Older relatives will be giving her small tokens. Three days after the wedding, the bride will visit her family where she is welcomed and received as a guest.

Red packet for opening the door
Offering red packets to bridesmaids after door games (source: TIAT Photo)

More about Chinese Marriage Rituals

It all starts with the proposal

Chinese wedding is not just the union of bride and groom, but also of the two families. The proposal begins by finding a matchmaker who helps the groom's family in their search for a suitable bride. Once they find a potential match, the groom's family showers them with gifts. If the bride's family is interested, they would send with the matchmaker the girls' birth records, including the time and date of her birth. The groom's family would then place the document on the ancestral altar for three days. If nothing inauspicious happens during that time, they would have an astrologer assess it for compatibility. If everything goes well, they would send the birth documents of the groom to the bride's side, who will also get the compatibility checked.

If the results come out favorable by both parties, a date is set for the first in-person meeting of both families.

The Betrothal Process

This whole process can last for about a year, and it primarily involves elaborate gift (known as "Grand gift") presenting by the groom's family to the bride's family, as a way of wishing them happiness and good fortune. One thing to note is that all the gifts are given in even numbers. This is to concord with the old adage that everything good comes in double.

On the betrothal day, the bride's family also return gifts to the groom's side, along with promising a dowry. The dowry can be delivered a few days before the wedding, or it can be given on the betrothal day itself in conjunction with the return gifts.

On this day a special letter is also crafted to officialize the engagement and vows of both families. This letter will also have a registry with a list of expected gifts for the wedding. Then an auspicious date is chosen for the official wedding.

Telling everyone the Good News

Wedding invitations and "Happiness cakes" are sent out to the friends and relatives to inform them of the engagement and wedding. These happiness cakes contain the dragon and phoenix symbol (which is also a common symbol printed on Chinese wedding invitations) imprinted upon them which is to signify the harmonious marriage.

In today's age, these cakes are often given to the guests instead of western wedding cakes.

Bridal bed Custom

This ritual is performed by a highly respected man or woman from the groom's side. Often a person with many children and grandchildren is chosen to perform this ritual. This person will move the bed slightly to the right location. Pink and red bed sheets are used on the bed, and it is decorated with certain things like persimmons, red dates, lotus seeds and pomegranate leaves. Red envelope with coins are placed at the corner of the bed to symbolize prosperity. Lamps are also placed beside the bed to signify the wish for birth of sons. In the Chinese language, lamp sounds very similar to son, so adding lamp symbolizes adding sons.

This bed is left untouched till the wedding night, however, children are free be on the bed.

Hair Combing Ritual

This ritual, which occurs the night before wedding, is officiated by a woman and man with "good luck"- someone with grandchildren and a living spouse. In their own respective homes, the bride and groom are required to shower in water imbued with pomelo or pomegranate leaves, which is said to wash away any bad fortune. They then change into fresh new clothes and shoes, signifying new beginning.

Hair Combing Set
A hair combing set for Chinese wedding. This can be bought nowadays [source: littlekalykaly (in traditional Chinese language)]

The bride and groom are made to sit in front of the window or mirror, with the moon in view.

Groom's hair is combed at least an hour before the bride's. This custom signifies both of their advent into adulthood.

Throughout the entire ritual, an incense with the imprint of dragon and phoenix is lit.

The combing of the hair is done in four strokes, each holding a special blessing of its own.
  • The first stroke represents their union from the beginning to end.
  • The second stroke represents harmony and happiness.
  • The third stroke is a blessing for the couple to have many kids and grandkids.
  • The fourth stroke is a blessing for a long marriage, till their hair and eyebrow turn white.
After the hair combing, the bride and groom are to drink a sweet soup called tangyuan. It is made of rice. Then, mother of the bride gifts the daughter a special box filled with jewelry, needles, thread, scissors etc, each holding a special meaning to the bride. The mother also gifts red packets with coins as a farewell gift for her daughter.

On the wedding day

On the day of the wedding, groom along with the groomsmen arrives at the bride's house to fetch her. They are blocked by the bridesmaids who make the groom and his entourage do some good natured, fun activities to prove how much he cares about her. These wedding door games are usually something very interesting. They can also help to heat up the atmosphere of the activities for the whole big day.

Usually, the groom will be asked questions to see how much he knows his bride in these games. He might also be asked to do some physical activities to show that he is strong enough to take care of her. As the last competence test, the bridesmaids ask him for monetary blessing or bribe. This is where the groom uses his bargaining skills to agree upon a price who he gives in a red packet. This is something which is still practiced nowadays. After the red packet is given to the bridesmaids, he will then be allowed in to see the bride.

The Tea Ceremony

Tea is to a Chinese wedding what wine is to a western one. Once the groom enters the bride's home, he and the bride kneel in front of her parents who will be sitting on a chair. The girl sits on the left of the groom facing her dad, and the boy sits in front of her mother. This is a ritual to signify that the bride has become a member of the groom's family.

A person with good fortune then pours the tea. The couple serves tea first to the altar, to show respect to their ancestors, and then to the mother, followed by the father. Then, the rest are served tea in the order of seniority, starting with the mother's side of the family first. Each relative, gifts the couple a red packet, lai see, filled with token or jewelry, and places it on the tea platter once they get served with tea. Once everyone gets served, usually younger siblings or cousins serves tea to the bride and groom.

Then the bride and groom leave to visit the groom's family for tea ceremony. At his house, his mother will greet them and supervise the next set of ceremonies. There will be a traditional beautifully decorated altar where the bride and groom will perform their wedding vows. The couple kneel in front of the altar and are given cups joined together with a red string. They sip the wine once and then they cross their arms and drink again from each other's cup. This is to signify harmony in their relationship.

Once the vows are exchanged, tea ceremony is then held as a symbol of good relations with the in-laws. At the end of the ceremony, the couple is considered married.

The Wedding Banquet

dessert in Chinese wedding banquet
Rice dumpling, a kind of dessert served in Chinese wedding banquet

Usually the wedding banquet is paid for by the groom's side.

In the wedding banquet a lavish feast is thrown for all the guests. The meal consists of more than 8 courses. These include fish (abundance), pigeon (peace), lobster (happiness), and noodles (longevity). The deserts usually contains lotus seed as a blessing for many children.

Before the food is ready, the guests play Mahjong, and other traditional Chinese games. Some might choose to take pictures with the couples. Do note that the bride is supposed to change her dress 4-5 times throughout the ceremony.

While the guests enjoy their foods, the couple go from table to table to receive toasts from all the guests, and to introduce themselves to members of both families. Along with wedding gifts, the couple are also given packets filled with money when they visit each tables.

Then the couples, along with the family members, stand in a line to thank the guests before they leave.

Post wedding customs

After the wedding night, the bride is to wake up early and prepare a large meal for the entire groom's family to show them that she is cultured.

After three days, bearing gifts the couple return to the bride's family. In the past, transportation could be something inconvenient. Family of the bride might live far away from family of the groom. The bride would be live the family of the groom after marriage. It could be difficult for the bride to see her family again. As a result, this event was considered to be the final farewell from her childhood home, the bride brings many gifts in ancient period. The bride's family may choose to return some gifts to the groom's side as courtesy. They may also send with the bride, a head and tail of a roasted pig to signify the beginning and end of the wedding. The pig also signifies that the bride was still a virgin before marriage, which was something of ultra importance in the past.

Below is a Youtube video about a traditional Chinese wedding. Although Chinese people will not do it like this in their weddings nowadays, it is still interesting to have a look at what people did in acient times.

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