Marriage traditions in China can be mystifying to a foreigner especially considering the idea that marriage is not just about the couple but about the joining of families.
The following article with a byline from Alan Paul Trundley that I have found posted in various places on the internet provides some interesting insights through the eyes of a foreigner.
Chinese Marriage Through a Foreigner’s Eyes
– by Alan Paul Trundley
Perhaps a big difference for many foreigners is that in China marriage is seen as a joining of families, such as it was in the past in western countries. Given that most children are from one child families, it is easy to understand that parents take a keen interest in who their ‘child’ marries. Foreigners should also remember that the child is responsible for looking after the parents in their old age.
In many countries there are three components to a wedding: the legal, a wedding ceremony perhaps religious, and a ‘party’. This is essentially true in China. The legal element can only be completed by the officials in the offices of the Civil Affairs Bureau. Many couples marry officially and then proceed to the wedding ceremony and or party the next weekend, or even later.
China has full religious tolerance so any couples wanting a religious ceremony can have one of their choosing. Others sometimes choose a non-religious traditional style wedding ceremony quite likely related to the region or ethnic group they are from. Given the size of China and its range of ethnic groups, it is easily understood that there is much variety throughout the country. There is a growing interest in reviving traditional ceremonies. Visitors who not themselves marrying should take any opportunities they have to view a wedding ceremony.
The third element is the ‘party’, what in the English tradition is known as a ‘reception’, though the word ‘banquet’ is perhaps the best in the Chinese context, where friends and relatives are entertained. Again similar to the west, there are ‘obligations’ and the guests will often be friends of the parents. As in most countries there is special food and usually alcoholic drink too. The form of this varies often according to finances. Some receptions are held in the street, but most will be in a restaurant, often very lavish. Generally, a foreigner will not feel at all out of place at a wedding banquet as it is not so different from what they’re used to. Of course, the meal is in the Chinese way, with groups of about 10 guests around each table with a range of dishes being served over a period of an hour or so. The couple, perhaps with immediate family, will probably move from table to table toasting the guests. China has special foods associated with weddings, again varying from region to region. There is an equivalent of the western wedding cake. Individual Dragon and Phoenix cakes, meaning Happiness Cakes, may be given to guests.
Usually, there will be speeches complimenting and praising the couple and the families, and offering good wishes for the future. There will not be a speech by a ‘best man’ insulting and seeking to embarrass the groom as we are used to in the Anglo-American tradition!
The wedding vow is considered a core element in western weddings, both civil and religious. China does not really have this but during the reception you could use the custom of the couple drinking from glasses or goblets joined together with red string or ribbon.
There are many traditional aspects to a western wedding – that typically women know well and men say ‘yes’ to, such as a bride wearing ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’; the groom not seeing the bride before the wedding; or the idea that girl that catches the bride’s bouquet will be the next to marry. In China, there are similar things. The bride must wear new shoes, the bride’s family may act trying to prevent the bride meeting the groom and so leaving her parents, while the groom’s family tries to get the bride and her entourage into the groom’s family home. There is also a tradition of visiting the bride’s parents on the third day after the wedding with an associated series of rituals such as further meaningful gifts and even the returning of some gifts. Such traditions are varied as is the desire of families to follow them.
Foreigners and men: for a happy life, be flexible to the desires of the hosts and your bride!
Typically, this is a bit different from western countries where professional photos or videos are taken as part of the wedding ceremony. In China, they are often referred to as bridal photos. Most couples will choose to have professional photos and have them taken maybe as much as 3 months before the wedding. Most couples will hire costumes, perhaps the most popular is for the bride to wear a formal western style wedding gown and the groom to wear a formal suit or a more modern stylish jacket and trousers. Alternatively, some couples choose traditional Chinese clothes (gua qun 褂裙 or qi pao 旗袍). Unless you have a personal choice the photo ‘shoot’ will be at a local beauty spot and in the photographic studio so as to ensure romantic backdrops.
One thing you can be sure, every town has at least one specialist wedding shop where you can hire clothes and arrange for wedding photos. So early in the planning process visit some and see what is available. If you would like to see photo shoots in action, just go to the favoured local spots. In some cities there are very clear favourites: in Guangzhou it is clearly Shamian Island.
In the west it is common for a couple to formally announce their wedding by becoming engaged and traditionally the man buys the woman an engagement ring. In China it is often somewhat different. Most Chinese, especially girls, will want their parents to be happy with an engagement before it is committed to. Clearly, the Chinese part of the couple must take the lead in ensuring this occurs, but the foreigner will need to co-operate.
Some parents will consult a fortune teller to see if the marriage is suitable and to select an auspicious date. This can be a concern but the fortune teller will probably provide the answer then parents want to hear! If you get a negative, you clearly face an uphill struggle.
On the other hand, when you are first introduced to the parents be careful about what words are used if you are not yet committed to marriage. Some parents equate ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ with being engaged and if they approve of you, you could find things get out of hand!
The custom is for the grooms parents to buy ‘grand gifts’ for the bride’s family to formally accept the marriage. These gifts may be largely ceremonial or may include money, especially in ‘nines’, i.e. 99rmb, 999rmb as nine symbolises ‘forever’. Just like in many other countries, in today’s world this is open to discussion just like who pays what for the wedding.
9 symbolises forever.
Family and guests invited to the wedding ceremony and reception will normally provide cash gifts, traditionally in a red envelope (li shi), though other gifts are sometimes given. If a foreigner is marrying a person from a not well off family, it could be embarrassing to have the wider family members contribute money; it could be a good idea to suggest the system of wedding gifts that many of us are used to. The gift list could then be restricted to inexpensive items. In some instances, guests at the reception contribute to the cost of the reception with the money going to the parents.
Paying for the Wedding
In marriages between Chinese couples, the parents decide who will pay for what – of course, that is not always smooth sailing. Where a foreigner is involved it can become more complex. It is often assumed the foreigner is rich and can afford to pay more than would otherwise be asked. Likewise, the parents might be inclined to upgrade the wedding beyond what they would do themselves, especially by inviting more guests which brings them greater status or ‘face’. In some ways this is not unlike some foreign parents, but they will be paying. In this situation, the foreigner is struggling to balance ‘doing the right thing’ with not feeling being taken advantage of.
In many countries and cultures there are difficulties in arranging weddings; parents of the couple and the couple themselves have different ideas. So it should be no surprise that the same can happen in China. The foreigner can sometimes feel bewildered by what is being planned. Perhaps more importantly, the foreigner does not realise some of the broader implications and commitments.
At the simplest level, the Chinese have a closer connection with their parents after marriage and have a responsibility for them. This will not be diminished if you do not live in China; your Chinese ‘other half’ may want to send money, especially in the parent’s old age. There are also obligations to other family members which go beyond what a westerner is used to. There is also a greater desire for two or more generations to live together, than many westerners are used to, though the younger generations are beginning to value more personal space.
As commented on earlier you might feel that the wedding costs are rising well beyond your expectations and even your means to pay. It is more likely that it is mostly enthusiasm that causes this to happen. It is not always easy to overcome, but the best way is to try and avoid the situation arising. Discuss the style and lavishness with your fiancée, discuss what you consider a reasonable budget and try to have these established well in advance. It won’t always go according to plan but the couple must have a common view of what they want.
There are also a few stories of the future parents in law demanding substantial money presents from foreigners. Large gifts are not part of modern Chinese wedding culture so in the unlikely event that you meet this situation you should meet with other people in the same community and of a similar financial standing and discuss what is reasonable. You can then review the situation with your fiancée and try to overcome the demands. Only you can decide the right course of action.
Almost all Chinese who want to enter into an international marriage are genuine; likewise so are most foreigners. Sadly, there are some individuals who are not being totally honest. All Chinese who anticipate living in their partner’s country need to consider whether they are being told the truth about their fiancée’s work and lifestyle they will be going to. Clearly, you each need to find out as much about each other as possible. If the Chinese partner asks for some proof, don’t be insulted, but offer it willingly. Foreigners need to consider whether the Chinese fiancée is simply seeking residency overseas and will demand a divorce soon after arrival. There is no clear way of checking this, but if from an early stage you say you would consider living in China, some will not be interested.
Fortunately these problems are not too common, though they do exist. And if you see warning signs you should not ignore them. Romance must always be tempered with good sense!