With so many changes in China over the past 30 years of opening up, it isn’t surprising that weddings have been hugely impacted as well. The result is that in modern China it’s incredibly hard to say what a “typical” wedding includes beyond a large meal and a lot of drinking. So I will describe a wedding I attended last year in Chengdu in order to present some of the interesting twists that now appear in Chinese weddings.
I was greeted at the door by the bride and groom who shook my hand before I was passed off to the official gift collectors. These people counted the money given by each guest and then recorded the figure in a book next to my name. Upstairs I was seated at one of the tables reserved for teachers from my department. The table was already full of cold dishes (appetizers), and several of them had almost been finished by the time I arrived.
The first person that caught my eye was the wedding host. In this case it was a man in some kind of “high fashion” suit that waxed on the meaning of love in an effort to make the women cry (or at least that’s how it was explained to me).
A Disney song (I think it was something from Pocahontas) blasted through the house speakers as the bride and groom made their grand entrance. She was wearing a white Western-style dress and he was wearing a somewhat loosely fitting tux as they walked down the aisle with fireworks on both sides. Friends, relatives, and co-workers fought to get the perfect picture with their mobile phone. It seemed like a strange tribute to Hollywood style weddings, only a bit more dangerous.
The couple than stood patiently as both of their bosses read speeches praising the value of marriage and their individual accomplishments at work. No one in the audience seemed to be listening as the men awkwardly shouted their prepared words into the microphone. At points I felt the urge to shush those casually chatting at the table next to mine, but I managed to resist.
Once that bit was finished, in what seemed to be a nod to a tradition, the couple poured tea for both sets of parents, and presented it by kneeling before them. This, as far as I could tell, was the most important act of the ceremony because the crowd actually fell silent for a moment.
Finally the happy couple kissed as we were once again treated to more Disney music and a barrage of bubbles while the crowd surged to snap photos of this magical moment. It took me several minutes to even begin to process what I had witnessed.
Did anyone there even remember what a traditional Chinese wedding was like? Why were the bosses there? And how many movies do you have to watch before you can claim to be able to plan a Western-style wedding?
There was no time to think about those questions, it was time for the massive banquet along with copious amounts of Chinese red wine (awful) and baijiu (somehow worse than the wine). The bride and groom left pleasantly drunk, after being toasted by each guest, to start their new lives together.
Read on – What happened to Traditional Chinese Weddings? and Wedding Days and Wedding Nights
As you may have guessed by now, this week’s focus is going to be weddings and marriage in China, including an amazing guest post by one of my Chinese friends on why he hates the whole subject, a look at a few of the fun/crazy wedding traditions, along with other bits of cultural fun.
Oh I really enjoyed reading this! Weddings are such big business these days. The daughter of one of my Beijing friends is a “wedding stylist”. Several of my young Chinese friends have recently married but unfortunately I have been unable to attend the weddings. However, from what they have told me and what I have observed from photos, it’s crazy consumption! One friend went to Suzhou to buy “the red dress and the white dress”. She says lots of girls do that to save a lot of money on Beijing prices.
Funny how this reminded me of the last Chinese I went to here… where the bride … tried to hide the fact that she was… umm.. carrying someone else under the western style dress with her. Yep… people pretended they couldnt see it.. but that girl was pregnant. And some god awful singing when on … that no one was paying any attention to… then I noticed that the bride was crying… (i thought it was the singing.. because I almost cried when my ears were bleeding) but evidently.. she said something .. “lovely” I was told… although there were no fireworks inside at this event.. there were the tea and bowing … and a cake cutting ceremony… but .. the bride and groom actually took too long to come to the back where our table was… so I ended up leaving earlier. The food did just keep coming out and I did swipe a couple packs extra of Qing hua Cigarettes for my hubby….I am still puzzled about the whole thing.
This was going to be a topic for a future post, so it’ll show up in other places, but the wedding and marriage are separated here. People are occasionally married a full year before the wedding ceremony, so it’s not good to be pregnant during the wedding, but people tend to ignore it.
ohh.. and in Yuyao … here they rent the dresses… they dont buy any at all…
This is exactly what I have been research lately, and a great topic to discuss. Thanks and I’m really looking forward to your future posts. JF
Another great post from the “red-guy”….
In Japan, the bride and groom rent traditional kimono style outfits that would normally cost a 100K or more if purchased. The rent can be around $3-6K or more depending on bride and groom’s/parent’s money picture. The wedding ceremony is traditionally Shinto. Beautiful colors, sounds, (If you ignore some of the strange human sounds)….the bride wears a white kimono of sooooo many layers…with a white hat of sorts to cover her “horns of jealousy” .
After the ceremony, everyone but the b&d go to a huge reception hall for much food and drinks and food and drinks and many toasts, etc…. The one I was at was very interesting if you really like Japanese food……. but they used little square wooden cups for the sake and there was real gold in the cups that you are supposed to swallow for good health and fortune. (I managed to collect the gold from most of the people’s cups before they swallowed the gold… I was the silly foreigner with strange habits and manners that could be over-looked. I probably ended up $200 ahead by the end of the reception…)
Soon the b&d come in in their wedding outfits…. pose for photos…then leave…. after a bit, they come in in really beautiful kimonos of many colors for the girl and formal gray for the guy….. more photos….
They leave, and come back finally with the bride in a western style fancy wedding gown and the groom in a shinny, gray, big suite with tails…. cut the cake, more toasts, etc…
Then they walk around from table to table talking with everyone.
All guests bring money gifts for the couple. Then each guest is given a catalog of various gift items with a message that you qualify for a return gift of “X” $ .
My wife recently went to a wedding, before the earthquake, and gave her gift and later was given 3 big chef’s knives in return….which she had chosen from the catalog.
The cost of these formal weddings is becoming prohibitive…. so, many b&ds are opting for standing on some type of podium and telling everyone in a loud voice that the man will take care of the woman and she announces that she will look after him. They put their seals on a government form and …ta da..presto-change-o… they are married…time to drink it up with friends and family.
Please keep up your good work here! Knowing how different cultures do things is fascinating to me!
interesting stuff John. I have a limited knowledge of Japan from a few broad courses in college. I wonder how weddings will change in the short run in light of new efforts there to restrain showing wealth.
I saw a Chinese wedding on YouTube a while back. It stood out because an American stranger crashed the wedding, but was invited to go up front to say a few words to the happy couple. Speaking as an American, this particular wedding seemed more like what we’d call a wedding reception. Lively, kind of loud with loud music, and a tad disorganized.
I’m kinding of living vicariously though your posts. Looking forward to the next one.
I have been tempted a number of times to invite myself to a random wedding. In Longzhou I don’t think anyone would have minded my presence, and they were pretty easy to find.
You are right in saying that the main part of the wedding is more like a reception than a ceremony.
I can’t wait to read the rest of this series Tom.
My fiancee (who is Chinese) and I are getting married here (China) in May. We’re planning a Western wedding with Chinese characteristics (sorry, I just couldn’t resist, but really, that’s what it’ll be like). I’m really curious to see how the Chinese guests will react, especially since her and I both have the same religious beliefs and we plan on incorporating several of those elements into the wedding too. We’re also making all of our own food (mostly Western, some Korean). I’ve been to numerous Chinese weddings exactly like the one you described and the amount of food wasted is tremendous (along with the nasty alcohol – we’re doing real red & white wine & champagne – NO baijiu).
Thanks for the great work you do on this blog.
I haven’t had the chance of going to a Chinese/Western wedding yet, but will in a few months. I applaud your decision to for go baijiu, just the other day I saw a newly married couple passed out in the back of a sedan on their way home from their wedding.
Well, if you can make it to Qinhuangdao near the end of May, you’re invited!
I will be in the States then for my brother’s wedding. Congratulations none the less, and I look forward to reading about the craziness on your blog.
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I attended a Japanese wedding last year; my wife’s nephew. There certainly was no effort to restrain appearance of wealth. Even though my wife’s brother is NOT wealthy and is in fact a carpenter/contractor in Chiba…NOT wealthy, he and the bride’s family spent TONS of money. They even rented a specialized Shinto shrine and reception hall to have the wedding in. After some discussion after I’ve read your post, no one in my wife’s family can consider a “cheap” wedding if it is done by the parents. Nor had they heard of any….unless…..
There are three possibilities; 1. the parents are near poverty, 2. There is NO “religion” in anyone’s mind. 3. Just the kids are putting the thing on and they really have no money or don’t want to spend what it costs to have a “real” wedding.
If that is the case, then, as I mentioned, the b&g stand up and just promise to be good little h&w…then “sign” the government form for weddings.
Most girls MUST HAVE the white,western dress as part of the ritual. They even hire a minister, whom they hope speaks Japanese. They often have just the western style element rather than the Shinto style….if money is tight.
Hope I’m not writing too much….. and hope you keep writing more… great stuff, spot on, way to go……etc…..
Interesting. Japanese and Chinese culture can overlap in so many places, and still be so different, especially in areas where religion is present.
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I’m a Chinese student living in Houston now. Last month I was invited to a western-style wedding of a Chinese couple, which was small but touching. I always feel that nowadays the so-called Chinese wedding is no longer “traditional” because people are more interested in the fancy “western-style elements” but have to keep necessary steps (e.g. grand reception) to entertain their relatives and friends. That’s why the weddings seem so awkward and confusing.
Personally I’d like my wedding to be more of a ceremony (sacred or at least quiet… no money counting, no drunk people). Although I do love my cousin’s wedding held last year in Harbin, Heilongjiang, which is most close to “traditional”. The bride and groom dressed as antient Chinese (da gua and red suit), and the wedding host was a person who was assumed to be xian tai ye 县太爷 (a respectable local official?). The bride veiled with red cloth was held in arm by her “ya huan” 丫环 (maid) to step over a fire basin, and performed the bowing ceremony (拜天地) with the groom, etc. Then people were enjoying the meal with live folk music played by some local artists. To be honest, I hate it so much to see a bride in white dress get drunk in endless toasting —- it is just sooooooooo weird! and I was happy to see they designed it so well in my cousin’s wedding to make everything seems in harmony.
BTW, I like your posts. Now I’m a laowai too in the States! 😛
Thank you so much for your comment. I think you are highlighting something important here. It’s not that Western weddings are better, or Chinese weddings are better, but when you mash them together, you are so far away what could be called traditional. I think it’s a part of China’s opening up, and in a decade or two, China will develop a “traditional” type of wedding again, but for now they need to try different kinds.
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My gosh, I could tell you some stories about weddings, planning, and the sort. My husband (Chinese) and I just got married at the end of May. It was definitely an “experience!” Parts of it were amazingly awesome, and parts were just a major pain. But I got a wonderful husband out of it all, so it was worth it!! 🙂