Three Letters and Six EtiquettesTraditional Chinese weddings remain popular to this day, particularly for couples that live in more traditional areas, far from China’s booming industrial centers. Stemming from rituals that were developed from 400 B.C., the way in which traditional marriages take shape has changed little in the almost two-and-a-half millennia since then. The notion of Three Letters and Six Etiquettes is an important part of the culture and protocol of Chinese marriage, and while variations on these practices can be found right across the country the basic principles remain rigidly adhered to in the more traditional of marriages.
Three LettersIn order to establish a traditional marriage, there are three famous letters that must be supplied. These documents are treated as formal markers of the marriage that is about to take place. Without these letters, the marriage will not adhere to the traditions and customs laid out over thousands of years of history, and so it’s important to understand what each letter does and what information it contains for the smoothest, most traditionally customary path to marriage.
The three letters come at different stages of the marriage process, and run as follows.
Betrothal LetterThe first letter of the three in traditional Chinese wedding customs is the Betrothal Letter, which is an essential marker of the engagement between the two parties. It is a formal, technical document which establishes that the couple intend to marry, and sets out the vows and undertakings of both parties to the marriage.
Gift LetterThe second letter that is produced following on from the Betrothal Letter is the Gift Letter. This letter outlines the specific type and nature of gifts that the couple are requesting for their wedding day once the marriage has been officially accepted. This is designed to be sent to the families of each party in order to direct the tradition of buying gifts and make sure the gifts bought for the day are appropriate.
Wedding LetterOnce the two previous letters have been produced, the Wedding Letter will be drafted. This is the formal letter that is presented to the brides parents on the day of the wedding, and marks the official welcome of the bride by the groom into his family circle. The Wedding Letter marks the completion of the letters phase of the wedding custom.
Six EtiquettesIn addition to the three letters, there are six etiquettes, or processes, that the bride and groom and their families must go through in order to establish the traditional Chinese marriage.
ProposalIn traditional Chinese culture, marriage is negotiated by the parents of the bride and groom. Initially, the approach will be made by the groom’s parents or a matchmaker, who will ask the bride’s parents directly about the possibility of arranging a marriage between the bride and groom. At this stage, the parents can refuse the marriage, in which case the process will come to a halt, or they will accept the marriage with no objections. This is always the first step in the process.
Birthday ConciliationOnce the marriage has passed the proposal stage, an astrologer will usually be called in to match up the birthdays of the bride and groom astrologically. This is designed to see if there is any conflict between the birthdates of the bride and groom. At this stage, the marriage can and will go no further if the birthdays clash with the stars, or if there is some other astrological reason that points towards disruption and disharmony in the relationship. Assuming the birthdates are compatible, the marriage will progress through to its next phase.
Betrothal GiftsIf the marriage is allowed to pass the birthdates conciliation, the next phase is where betrothal gifts are presents and exchanged. Where a matchmaker is involved, he will exchange gifts between the groom’s family and the bride’s family, along with the betrothal letter to the bride’s family as a formal register of the intention to marry. At this point, the bride’s family can still refuse the marriage and halt the process, and there is no guarantee that the marriage will get beyond this stage of the process.
Wedding GiftsWhen the betrothal gifts and the betrothal letter have been accepted on the bride’s side, the next step is to send on wedding gifts. Unlike Western marriage custom, the wedding gifts exchanged in Chinese custom are of a specified type and style of gift, and there are many sub-customs that govern how these are exchanged and which specific gift will be most appropriate. Gifts generally may be tea, fruits (such as oranges or red dates), money or coconuts, for example. These are sent out again by the groom’s family to the bride’s family in recognition of the forthcoming wedding.
Choosing The DateSuch is the Chinese belief in astrology and fortune that even the date of the wedding is subject to astrological approval. Like the birthday conciliation process, the date of the wedding must be compatible for the couples, and is chosen for its ability to give good fortune rather than any more practical basis.
The CeremonyWhen the three letters and six etiquettes process is all but completed, the final step of the wedding ceremony itself takes place. There are countless customs governing how the ceremony takes place and how it should look – from the clothes worn by the bride and groom through to the running order of the day. Traditions include musical accompaniment for the bridegroom towards the bride’s home, which signals to the public that a wedding is about to take place and celebrates with joyous melody the forthcoming marriage.
These traditional customs are not essential for contemporary Chinese marriage, but they are still faithfully upheld, in simplified ways, across the country as an important tradition and a nod to China’s long, illustrious history. Culturally extremely significant, the Three Letters and Six Etiquettes of marriage chart out the way countless millions of weddings have taken place in the country since their development from around 400 B.C.