One of the things I enjoy about living in China is that culture here seems to be in a constant state of change, even if many Chinese stubbornly claim that it isn’t. This is true of many cultures but China is doing it at an impressive rate.
Yesterday we looked at an example of weddings in modern China, but it’s also important to get a sense of how much weddings have changed in the last 100 years.
Anthropologically, weddings are of huge importance. They define new relationships and new roles. Where the new couple lives, who pays for the wedding, and the requirements for a dowry all reflect and reinforce the dynamics of male-female relations throughout society.
Traditional weddings in China emphasized the transfer of the wife from one family to another (My posts on Traditional Chinese Families). A typical wedding might include the husband arriving with great fanfare at the woman’s home where she would dutifully cry as she left the place she was born (if you didn’t cry it meant you were a terrible daughter, but that is a topic for another day).
The woman would then be brought to the husband’s home where the ceremony would be held. This can still be seen in some parts of China, and the procession is usually accompanied by a very noisy orchestra and an absurd number of firecrackers.
The ceremony required the new couple to bow before every member of the man’s family, as well as a huge meal hosted by the man’s family to celebrate the new relationship. I say “new” because China practiced arranged marriages until 1950, and it was common for the wedding to be the first time the couple actually met.
Under Mao weddings changed greatly as they reflected changes in society. Arranged marriages and concubines were banned, and “love” marriages were promoted. The practice of giving a dowry was also discouraged as it was considered a very costly burden that didn’t mesh with communist values.
The wedding no longer symbolized the bride moving from one family to another, but instead was the creation of a new unit. Bowing to the family and relatives was largely removed from the traditional wedding, and was replaced by bowing before a portrait of Chairman Mao.
It was probably around this time that the couple’s bosses began to have a role in wedding ceremonies. The work-unit was a major institution in a person’s life, and given the absence of religion, the boss took on a role which would have been reminiscent of traditional Chinese religions.
These changes have left China with awkward ceremonies that were made obsolete after opening up, so some practices have been reinvented for the modern wedding.
It is not uncommon for the groom to now arrive at the bride’s home in a car adorned with dozens of flowers. His car is just one of many in a procession which slowly drives through town as men in a lead van throw fireworks and film the occasion. Parents no longer arrange the marriage, but they still have the final say in almost all marriages.
Interestingly, now that brides are more “valuable” due to the one child policy, and since they no longer live the groom’s parents, grooms are required by new traditions to provide an apartment for their new life. Stories abound of women breaking up with the love of their life due to the man’s lack of apartment.
Tomorrow, crazy wedding traditions with Chinese characteristics.