Chinese marriage became customary during the Warring States period. Due to the vast expanse of the territory, different practices are followed in different places, although they all generally adhere to similar guidelines. Traditional marriage customs lost their popularity due to their complexity and the collapse of feudal society. However, traditional marriage can still be witnessed in the countryside. Especially recently, traditional marriage customs are being revived in some places and they are attracting many prospective couples.
According to the old wedding custom of China, parents and matchmakers arranged the marriage. Especially for a woman, she had to “follow the man she married, in whatever ways”. She must obey her husband and abide by the decisions of her parents-in-law. The old wedding custom usually included the following procedures.
Engagement was an indispensable procedure for the old marriage tradition. The process began with an elaborate marriage proposal and acceptance. The important parties in proposal and betrothal negotiations were the parents of the prospective bride and groom, rather than the bride and groom themselves. Marriage was considered too important a duty to be left in the rash hands of the young. This process was placed in the hands of a go-between, who acted as a buffer between the two parties, a role similar to that of a real estate agent today.
1) Bringing Together
Before the engagement, the matchmaker would go between the two families to communicate the conditions of both, such as the family estate, family members, the appearance, age, and temperament of both parties, etc. Generally speaking, the bridegroom’s side would favor a literary family and the bride’s side a rich one. Only if parents of both sides were satisfied with each other was it possible to go on to the next procedure.
2) Consensual Marriage
“Consensual Marriage” means that the eight characters about both parties’ birthdays were taken to the fortune-teller by the matchmaker to reckon whether they were right for each other as far as their birth signs were concerned and whether the union would yield a lucky result. Then the matchmaker would notify the results to parents of both parties. For some discreet parents, they would see the other party at the appointed place when the fortune-telling results were thought lucky. If both parties were satisfied with each other, the “betrothal gifts” might be given.
3) Give Betrothal Gifts
It was the object matter of engagement to give betrothal gifts. The matchmaker wrote out the betrothal card and negotiated with the bride’s family to decide the items. Then the bridegroom’s side gave the betrothal gifts according to the betrothal card in three times. The betrothal gifts consisted of a gift list, gifts, and monetary gifts. The gift list was the most important because it was the attestation of a formal betrothal. After giving the betrothal gifts, the wedding day could be decided.
Preparation for the Wedding
1) Installation of Bridal Bed
Preparation on the part of the groom involved the installation of the bridal bed on the day before the wedding. At a propitious hour on a selected day before the wedding day, a “good luck man” and a “good luck woman”, that is a man and woman with many children of both sexes, were selected to install a newly purchased bed. The “good luck man” would help to install the bridal bed in the correct place in the bridal chamber. The installation ceremony consisted of merely moving the bed slightly. The actual work was done earlier by servants or friends. The “good luck woman” would come to arrange the bridal bed. Then nobody is allowed to touch the bed until the couple entered the bridal chamber after the wedding ceremony.
Children were then invited onto the bed to bless the couple with fertility—the more children, the merrier. For the same reason, the bed was scattered with red dates, lotus seeds, peanuts, pomegranates and other kinds of fresh or dried fruits. Part of the fun was watching the children scramble for the fruits.
Usually, the bride’s dowry shall be sent to the bridegroom’s family by the day before the wedding day. Apart from jewelry, embroidered beddings, kitchen utensils, and furniture, the traditional dowry normally consisted of such symbolic items as scissors, a pair of pillows, shoes, clothes, chopsticks tied in red ribbon and bowls were musts in a traditional marriage.
Before the bride left for the bridegroom’s home, the “good luck woman” would lead her to the sedan chair. On her way to the chair, one of her sisters would shield her with a red parasol, while another sister would throw rice at the sedan chair. At the back of the sedan hung a sieve and a metallic mirror that was believed to protect the bride from evil.
Before she got on the bridal sedan chair bound for her new home, the bride had to cry to show that she did not want to leave her parents. She would cry over the love and care her parents had given her for so many years. At this moment, the bride’s mother would pass on to her daughter the secrets of how to be an adequate wife and daughter-in-law, how to handle the household with thrift and decency as well as make herself pleasant to every one of the new family, etc.
2) Escorting Bride to Groom’s House
It was the prelude to the wedding ceremony sending a party for escorting the bride to the bridegroom’s house. On the day before the wedding, the bridegroom was supposed to visit the bride’s family and salute all the family members of the bride but he couldn’t meet the bride. On the day of the wedding, the bridegroom should send an honor guard to the bride’s house. On the way to the bridegroom’s home, the honor guard would take the lead, followed by the bride’s sedan.
After various rules of rites, the bride would be carried to the sedan chair by her father or elder brother with the bridegroom standing by. When everything was all right, the bridegroom could take leave. The bride was still unseen to the bridegroom at this time with a piece of red silk veil covering her head and face. Usually, a crowd of friends would escort the bridegroom and musicians would play joyful tunes during the entire trip. Dancing lions, if any, preceded the troop. In ancient times, a bridal sedan chair (or a decorated donkey due to poverty or bad traffic) would be used to transport the bride.
3) Performing Formal Bows
After the sedan reached the bridegroom’s bridal chamber, an elder woman who had many offspring would support the hand of the bride and help her come out of the sedan chair in the wedding march. The woman would feed boiled rice dumplings to both bridegroom and bride because the round shape of the dumplings signifies harmony and union. Then the candles and the incense were lit and the bridegroom and the bride held the two ends of a red ribbon respectively and met on the red carpet. They would bow to each other and then drink from the nuptial cups. Now came the climax of the wedding ceremony. The bride and bridegroom were led to the family altar, where the couple kowtowed to Heaven and Earth, the family ancestors and parents successively. They then bowed to each other and were led to the bridal chamber. The ceremony proceeded under the director’s prompts and the applause from the audience.
4) Teasing Games in the Bridal Chamber
The teasing games started when the newlywed couple entered their bridal chamber after the wedding ceremony. Usually, all young men could participate except for the bride’s brothers-in-law. The funny and silly games help ease the tension since in ancient times the newlyweds never met each other before the wedding! The teasing games varied with regions.
5) Bridal Chamber
By the evening of the wedding day or, failing that, the next day, the bride should salute the uncles-and aunts-in-law. Then she would be led by the younger aunt or other female elders to salute all the elders. Next evening the new couple might have their supper (known as “Bridal Chamber Supper”) together in their bridal chamber for the first time. On the third day, the bride and the bridegroom would salute the memorial tablets of ancestors, which meant to show that marriage was not only for the bridegroom, but more importantly, for continuing the ancestral life.
6) Bride’s Return to her Parents’ Home
Traditionally, the newlyweds were to return to visit the bride’s parents three days after the wedding. It is an indispensable etiquette. A month after the wedding the bride would visit her parents’ home again accompanied by her husband bringing many kinds of gifts. The bridegroom went home on the same day after the escort mission, leaving his wife to stay at her parent’s home for several days.
Related Knowledge about Ancient China Marriage Customs
1) Three Letters and Six Etiquettes
A. Three Letters
Betrothal Letter: This was the formal document of the engagement, a must for a marriage.
Gift Letter: This would be given to the identified girl’s family. Within the letter would be a list of the types and quantity of gifts designated for the wedding once both parties accepted the marriage.
Wedding Letter: The Wedding Letter was prepared and presented to the bride’s family on the day of the wedding and was a document that confirmed and commemorated the formal acceptance of the bride into the bridegroom’s family.
B. Six Etiquettes
Proposing: If an unmarried boy’s parents identified a girl as their potential future daughter-in-law, they would then locate a matchmaker. Proposals were the specialty of the matchmakers. The matchmaker would formally present his or her client’s request to the identified girl’s parents.
Birthday matching: If the potential bride’s parents did not object to the marriage, the matchmaker would then ask for the girl’s birthday and birth hour to assure the compatibility of the potential bride and bridegroom. If the couple’s birthdays and birth hours did not conflict according to astrology, the marriage would continue onto the next stage. If there was any sign of astrological conflict, which meant the marriage would bring disasters upon both families, the proposed marriage was immediately quashed.
Presenting betrothal gifts: Once both birthdays are matched, the bridegroom’s family would then arrange for the matchmaker to present betrothal gifts and the betrothal letter to the bride’s family.
Presenting wedding gifts: After the betrothal letter and betrothal gifts were accepted, the bridegroom’s family would later formally send wedding gifts to the bride’s family. Usually, gifts may include money and food.
Picking a wedding date: An astrologer would be consulted by the bridegroom’s family in order to help select an auspicious date for the holding of the wedding ceremony.
Wedding ceremony: On the selected day, the bridegroom departed with a troop of escorts and musicians, playing cheerful music all the way to the bride’s home. After the bride was escorted to the bridegroom’s home, the wedding ceremony began.
2) Red—Color for the Chinese Wedding
Unlike Western tradition, the color red dominates traditional Chinese weddings. Chinese people tend to use or wear red to add a joyful atmosphere to such a festive occasion.
At dawn on the wedding day, the bride would put on new clothes and a pair of red shoes after bath and wait for the so-called “good luck woman” to dress her hair in the style of a married woman. Her head would be covered with a red silk veil with tassels. She waited for her future husband to escort her home, with married women talking around her about how to be a good wife.
On the other hand, the bridegroom was preparing himself to receive his wife. He was dressed in a long gown, red shoes and a red silk sash with a silk ball on his chest. The groom knelt at the ancestral altar as his father would declare his adulthood and his family responsibility.
Then the bridegroom set out to receive his bride. The most interesting part of the reception really took place at the doorstep of the bride’s residence, which was heavily guarded by the bridesmaid or the bride’s sisters. It was customary for the bridesmaid to give the bridegroom a difficult time before he was allowed to enter. Usually, wisdom, courage and his friends could help the bridegroom to succeed in his“trial”.However, there was one more situation he had to negotiate with the bridesmaid and sisters of the bride—to distribute among them red packets containing money—in order to take his bride home.