Chinese Wedding Customs
The summary below is an illustration of one of the many variations of Chinese wedding customs. Depending on the geographical regions of both the bride and groom families, the social status and wealth of both families, you may find significant differences of practices that you might have heard or encountered. This is by no means a scholarly work, but an attempt by the author to illustrate an example of traditional Chinese practice. Readers should consider this while enjoying the interpretation.
- Engagement or Intention to Marry
- Elaborate Gift Presentations – Betrothal
- Chinese Wedding Date Selection
- Chinese Wedding Invitations
- New Bed
- Gift Presentation just before the wedding
Similar to the western culture, Chinese wedding is considered as a union of two families. Once the bride and groom decide to get married or engaged, they should share the news with the parents.
Traditionally, Chinese marriages were pre-arranged by the parents, just like most of the other ancient cultures. When the groom’s parents identified a possible daughter-in-law, they would send a middleman (usually a married woman) to present proposal gifts to the girl’s parents. If the proposal was well-received by the girl’s parents, the middleman would obtain the girl’s birth date to be sent back to the groom’s family.
The groom’s family would place the birth date on the ancestral altar for three days. If there was no disaster or loss of property to the family during the three days, the groom’s parents would give the groom’s birth date to the middleman to be brought to the girl’s parents, who would also go through the same process.
At the same time, both parents would also consult their astrological experts for their advise on the potential match. Only when the outcomes were favorable, the parents would proceed with the next phase – gift presentation – betrothal.
However, in the modern world, most Chinese parents no longer pre-arrange marriage for their children. You can seldom find this practice in North America.
With the announcement shared to both parents, the two parents will then proceed with their discussions on gift presentation from the groom’s parents to the bride’s parents.
Most of the time, the gifts will be presented in form of both food and money. The food items include tea leaves, dragon-phoenix cakes (a specific type of Chinese cake), a pair of male and female poultry, sweetmeats, sugar, wine and tobacco. With tea leaves being the most essential item, symbolizing wishes from the groom’s family to the new couple for as many children and descendants as the tea leaves.
The dragon-phoenix cakes can mostly be found only in Chinatown area. For convenience, a lot of Chinese in North America have adopted the custom of using “cake coupons” in place of actual cakes. This practice has gained much popularity through the years and is the preferred way of presentation in the Chinese community. These cake coupons can be purchased from most Chinese bakeries with monetary value of $10. Purchase discount is usually available on these cake coupons when you buy in bulk. For example, 20% off regular price for more than 100 cards. These cake cards will be sent along with the invitation cards that the bride’s family sends to their relatives and friends as their announcement and invitation to the upcoming marriage feast.
Several days after the presentation of gifts from the groom’s family, the bride’s family can send gifts of food and simple clothing/accessories to the groom’s family. The gifts include practical items such as fruits, key chain and coin purse.
Upon presentation(s) of the gifts, the two families proceed to prepare for the wedding.
Up to now, the wedding date is still jointly selected by both parents. The groom’s parents usually take the lead to select a few “good” dates, then consult the bride’s parents who will determine the final date among those selected ones. “Good” dates are usually determined based on the Chinese Almanacs (Tong Shu).
The almanacs consists of predictions of luck, based on Chinese beliefs and interpretations, for the entire calendar year. They are usually available in early October for next year’s almanacs. They are usually printed in red cover and available in major Chinese book stores. Unfortunately, only Chinese version is available. There is no English publication as of yet.
Wedding invitations (both the invitation itself and the envelope) is preferred to be printed on red paper. In Chinese culture, red is the color for happiness. White or blue is not recommended as they are colors usually used in another occasion. A lot of Chinese people still follow the same traditional use of red, at the same time, there are more and more Chinese who has chosen to use other colors.
In Chinese culture, the newly weds need to sleep in a brand new bed after they got married. “New bed” contains an “innocent” connotation that neither the bride or the groom were ever married – “newly” married. This new bed is usually bought by the groom’s family, and beddings by the brides’ family. After it’s delivered and set up before the wedding, this bed cannot be slept or sat on by anybody except babies and children. In fact, traditional culture would ask babies or children to crawl on the bed for a short while. This practice symbolizes wishes for many more children to come. There is no specific restriction or practice on the type or color of bed that should be chosen.
A few days before the wedding, the bride’s parents send their gifts to the bride and groom. This time, the gifts should include beddings of the new bed. The bedding list includes an essential bed comforter with a “dragon-phoenix” design as well as two “Red Envelopes” to be placed underneath the bed. Unfortunately, these “dragon-phoenix” bed comforter can only be found in Chinatown even nowadays. A “Red envelope” is a red envelope with money stuffed inside. The amount of money that should be put in each envelope is flexible, as long as it has a “9″ ending. For example, $9 or $19 or $299. Nine stands for “long-lasting” in Chinese culture as it rhymes with the long-lasting meaning. The red envelopes are available in most Chinese bookstores in China Town.
On the wedding day, the groom and groomsmen will decorate the wedding car and drive to the bride’s house where they will fetch the bride. (This is unlike the western culture where the bride will arrive at the church by herself.)
At the bride’s house door, the bridesmaids (and wedding helpers) will play games with the groom and groomsmen before letting them into the house. These games usually involve asking the groom questions about the bride to demonstrate how well he knows her, doing push-ups to show his strength and singing songs to declare his love for the bride. The groomsmen are responsible to help the groom to pass all games.
At the end of the games, the groom will present a red envelope with money to the bridesmaids (and wedding helpers) and will thank everybody for letting him fetch the bride. The total amount chosen will have a “9″ ending. For example, $99, $199 or $299 depending on the number of bridesmaids (and wedding helpers) who have been invited. The groom and groomsmen will then proceed into the house.
On the wedding day, the bride serves tea to her parents, as a token of appreciate for the love and care that her parents have given her. The tea (regular Chinese tea) is served in a tea cup with a tea saucer. The bride serves it using both hands. This tea ceremony is done before the bride leaves the house and is usually not too elaborate.
On the other hand, the tea ceremony to the groom’s family takes place after the wedding ceremony and is much more elaborate. The tea to the groom’s family include lotus seeds and two red dates. The lotus seeds together with the red dates symbolize early arrival of children from the newly weds.
The newly weds knee in front of the parents when they serve this tea. A “lucky woman” will help the newly weds to make the tea, hand the tea to the newly weds, who will then serve it to the groom’s parents. The groom’s parents will return “Red Envelopes” to the newly weds, usually consist of either money or jewelery. A red envelope (with money) will also be given to the lucky woman when each cup of tea is served.
This is repeated for each of the older family members as respect to them. Tea is usually not served to the younger brothers and sisters of the family, instead a hug or hand-shake will usually be done.
When these teas are served, the woman stands on the left side and the man stands on the right side. For example, the groom will be kneeing in front of his mom and the bride will be kneeing in front of the groom’s dad.
Nowadays, many times, both the bride and groom will serve tea to the bride’s parents and family members in the bride’s house before they leave for the wedding ceremony. After the ceremony, they will go to the groom’s house and serve tea to the groom’s parents and family members. The red envelopes usually consist of $10-20 each. Jewelery can be watches or necklaces. Some “traditional” parents have their son and daughter knee before them to serve tea, other more “modern” parents have their children stand before them to serve tea.
Up till now, Chinese dinner banquet is still the most respected ritual of all. The highlight of the banquet is when the newly wed, along with their immediate families, going around the restaurant and making a toast with every guest. The path of this toast can start from the left or right side of all the guest tables, but do not turn back in the path.
Another tradition that is usually still carried out during the banquet is for the groom to carry the bride around all the guest tables. This symbolizes the promise from the groom to take care of the bride for the rest of their lives.