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What Happened to Traditional Chinese Weddings?

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.

Wedding car surrounded by firework debris

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.


22 Comments

  1. Chopstik says:

    Do you plan on following up this series on Chinese weddings with Chinese divorces?

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    In the autobiographical book “Mao’s Last Dancer”, the author Li Cunxin tells an amusing story of his parent’s marriage in the 1940’s. As was the custom, they met on their wedding day and knew nothing of each other. However, the bride was greatly reassured when her brother reported that he had spied on the groom in the toilet and observed that he had “all his moving parts”!!

    • Tom says:

      Strangely as Chinese attitudes towards sex change, there is still a “requirement” that the bride be a virgin. This has lead to the invention of a fake hymen for use on the wedding night, something akin to the wedding night in many Muslim cultures (this product has been denounced and banned in a few Muslim countries).

  3. Pelo says:

    A few questions…as usual.

    If parents have the final say in most marriages, do you know which set of parents pay for the wedding? Based on what I’ve read, they can be expensive affairs. I hear about tons of wasted food, which I’m sure isn’t cheap to purchase.

    Also, why wouldn’t a man have his own apartment if he is about to be married? Are jobs and apartments that hard to come by?

    Do newlyweds normally go away for honeymoons?

    Do the wife and kids take the husband’s name like in the West? (If I’m jumping the gun here, please let me know).

    • Tim says:

      WEDDING COST: The man’s family pays for the wedding, which is one of the interesting things my Chinese fiancee and I are having to figure out, since in America the woman’s family pays for the wedding.

      WEDDING FOOD: The food at a wedding in a medium-sized city can run about 1000RMB per table (10-12 people at a table). Multiply that by anywhere from 10 to 50 tables (or more for all I know)… Top-flight cities will be more, rural areas less, maybe 400RMB per table. And yes, the waste is extreme. In China it’s considered rude to not have more than enough food, which is why you’ll see, at major events like a wedding, food piled on top of food piled on top of food.

      APARTMENT: Many children live with their parents until marriage and if they don’t they likely rent a place (they also likely rent it with several other people, most of whom are probably strangers). Apartments are extremely expensive in major cities. Beijing just passed a new law that says you can’t buy an apartment there unless you have a Beijing hukou (residency permit) or you’ve paid income tax in Beijing for 5 consecutive years. Ouch.

      HONEYMOON: In my experience yes, couples do get away. All Chinese, when they get married, get 10 days off from work – federally mandated. According to my fiancee some couples are choosing a small destination wedding and doing the honeymoon there.

      NAME: The wife does not change her name, but the children do take the fathers family name. Although, (and this story comes directly from one of my Chinese friends and his personal experience with his girlfriends’ family), if a family has all daughters and no sons, they may seek to ‘adopt’ a boy from another family. In my friends’ case, they wanted him to sign a contract agreeing that when he and their daughter had a child, the child would take the mother’s name, thus ensuring the continuance of the family name.

      Tom, sorry, I’ve been sick all week and I’ve got a lot of time on my hands during the moments where I’m not feeling terrible… Hope I didn’t say too much, I just love talking about these things. 🙂

      • Tom says:

        It’s great having your input here since you are dealing with most of this stuff first hand. For me I’ve talked to several recently married, or soon to be married Chinese people, but no one in the midst of planning. So thanks for the great information.
        Just wanted to add on cost, more than 20,000rmb isn’t uncommon, and that represents almost a full year of salary for the majority of Chinese people.
        For names: It’d be good to mention that the first kid taking the wife’s family name is pretty rare given the one child policy.

      • Heather says:

        1,000 RMB per table is really really cheap. It’s actually more like 2,000 – 3,000RMB per table of 10. Unless the couples decides to really go all out with the wedding planning company and hiring a popular MC (if they want a lot of face, they’ll get a local TV personality), the food is definitely the most expensive part of the wedding. When you’re looking at venues, the hotel / restaurant will have a minimum number of tables they’ll require you to book at a specific price per table. An extremely nice banquet hall with lots of space, a stage, and 2 story-high ceilings, for instance, might require a minimum of 30 tables at 3,200 per table. A less fancy banquet room in the same fancy hotel might have a minimum of 12 tables at 2,300 per table. You can find a restaurant that will do it for only 1,000 per table, but you might lose face when the guests think to themselves “This couple is so stingy. I gave them 600 RMB and they’re treating me to dinner at THIS dump?!”

    • Pelo says:

      Thanks for the responses, Tim & Tom.

      Tim, I saw your marriage proposal video. It was touching. I loved the originality.

      • Tim says:

        Haha, Thanks! If only I could actually sing well. My mother was mortified by my clothes, but hey, it was Christmas Day!! 😀

    • Gerald says:

      Yes, weddings are expensive (not just the food, but also paying for the car procession, MC, etc.) however it is actually a profitable endeavour for the newlyweds. You see, the cost of the wedding is easily covered (and more) by the gifts of “hongbao” (red envelopes stuffed with cash) that the couple will receive from the wedding guests. That is why some, rather, I should say most, couples will invite everyone that they possibly can, even old acquaintences that they haven’t spoken to in years. It’s a blatent money-grab, yet ironically it’s considered impolite to turn down a wedding invitation.

      As for the apartment issue, there are plenty of apartments and also jobs here. The problem is that housing is very unaffordable here. Apartments in some areas of Beijing (and I’m sure the same is true for Shanghai) have exceeded Manhattan prices.

      • Tom says:

        Of course that money ends up being more like a loan, since the amount is recorded and reciprocity is expected. If I get 100rmb from a friend, I have to give him 100rmb for his wedding. The only “profit” comes from married people whose weddings you didn’t have to go to.
        Apartments everywhere in China are very expensive compared to local wages at the moment. This makes the requirement to own one a much bigger requirement than before.

      • Heather says:

        After having a wedding in China, I would definitely say it’s not true that it’s a profitable endeavor. We almost broke even if you only factor in the cost of food and the wedding planning company. Wedding clothes, paying for out-of-town guests’ accommodation, invitations, and other expenses ended up being out of pocket. If we had rented a fancy car to drive around the city in or hired one of the outrageously over-priced MCs to steal the spotlight and say ridiculous things no one cares about, we’ve have been even more in the hole. And most couples DO rent these. Also, 1/3 of all our hong bao money came from a single couple…

  4. Tim says:

    Yeah, definitely. I would say the name-taking of the wife would almost always happen in rural areas where the one-child policy is more leniently enforced. My friend’s girlfriend is one of three girls and they got the husband of the oldest sister to sign a contract like this. Of course now that their child is older the husband realizes that it was a bad idea…

    • Chopstik says:

      For those in mixed-culture (Chinese-Western) marriages where the father is Western and the mother Chinese, it has been my experience to see a child have the father’s last name (typically using the Western naming style) and a Chinese name that takes the mother’s maiden name.

      • Tom says:

        I haven’t seen that myself, but I don’t have too many mixed-culture married friends…I will have to start asking around.

      • Tim says:

        My fiancee and I have talked about maybe doing a hyphenated name for the child(ren) or them taking my family name and having two first names: one Chinese, one English (one would effectively become more like a middle name).

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