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Chinese Wedding Customs

Chinese have been around for a long long time and we've been living in separate regions. :) Therefore, each region has its own food, dialect and naturally, its own wedding customs. In this little page, I would like to share with you some Chinese customs which may have some local flavour [Hong Kong].

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Traditional Chinese Wedding Customs

I. The Proper Procedures: Three Letters and Six Etiquette

This is the elaborate process on the groom's parents' part to look for the right kind of bride for their family. Rich families will look for a bride who can take care of household finances and most importantly, give birth to sons to inherit the wealth of the family. Poor families will look for a bride who can work hard in the fields and give birth to sons to help out on the farm.

In the old days, marriages are arranged so it's quite normal for the parents to dominate the bride-seeking process. Girls from rich family will be sought out by other rich families and poor girls will probably marry into poor families. Hence the Chinese saying: bamboo door is to bamboo door as wooden door is to wooden door.

There are some circumstances where the marriage has been arranged when both the bride and the groom were very young or not even born. In the former case, a young girl may be bought by the rich family as a servant girl to serve the rich boy. When the boy grew up, she may become either his wife or one of his concubines. In the latter case, two pregnant mothers will make the promise that when the babies are born, if they were both boys or both girls, they would become brothers or sisters and if one baby was a boy and the other a girl, they would get married. Hence the saying: pointing to the bosom as a marriage promise. However, a lot of times when the boy grew up, his family may have fallen from prestige and sometimes the girl's family may refuse to let them get married. There are numerous folktales about tragedies that stem from arranged marriage. However, there are also many happy endings to arranged marriage. All we can say is that it was the fact of life at that time.

Ia. Three Letters

In the old days, all communication was through formal letters. Therefore, the letters play an important role in the events.

Request Letter
This letter confirms the formal arrangement of a marriage. It is sent by the groom's family to the bride's family. This letter is normally presented with the initial gifts for the bride's family.

Gift Letter
This letter accompanies the formal gifts for the Bride's family. It is actually a gift list that records the description and quantity of the gifts.

Wedding Letter
This letter is presented to the bride's family on th day of the wedding. It confirms the act of bringing the bride into the groom's family.

Ib. Six Etiquette

The Chinese word for etiquette can mean both customs and gifts. The following customs are known as the Six Etiquette

Request for Marrying the Bride
After the groom's family has spotted a young girl whom the groom wants to marry, the family will hire a spokeswoman who will communicate their wish to the potential bride's family. (In the old days, it is popular to hire elderly ladies as midwives or spokeswoman for the groom.) This lady will persuade the potential bride's family to accept the offer from the groom's family. Both sides will negotiate certain terms. If successful, both families will proceed to the next step.

Request for Bride and Groom's Birth Dates
This is the second step in arranging a marriage. Upon successfuly completion of the previous step, the groom's family will request for the bride's 'Eight Letters' through the spokeswoman. In Chinese calendar, there are 22 'letters' that we use to represent date. Ten are known as 'Tian Gan' and twelve are 'Di Zhi'. Two letters are used to represent each of teh following: year, month, day and time. Altogether, eight letters will accurately represent the bride's birthdate.

After obtaining the 'Eight Letters' of the groom and potential bride, a fortune telling master will be hired to determine whether the two match each other. If there is nothing wrong with the bride's birthdate, the groom's family will proceed to the next step. Otherwise, there will be no further contact between the families and the groom's family may look for another suitable bride.

Initial Gifts for the Bride's Family
If the potential bride's birthdate is acceptable, the groom's family will request the spokeswoman to send some initial gifts accompanied by the gift letter.

Formal Gifts for the Bride's Family
The groom's family will pick a 'good day' and send the bride's family the following bridal gifts: gifts, cash, cakes and food and sacrifices for worshiping the ancestors. This act confirms the marriage agreement between the two families.

Select the Wedding Date
The fortune telling master will select a 'good day' according the the bride and groom's and their family's birthdates.

Wedding Day
On the big day, both the bride and the groom's house will be decorated in red. The groom's family will send out a procession of servants, musicians and a carriage which is carried by four servants to the bride's family to bring the bride back. The bride will then be brought back to the groom's house and the two will perform the marriage cermony witnessed by all the relatives and friends.

The bride and groom will worship the heavens and the earth, the groom's ancestors and they will also serve tea to all of their superiors in the family. After that, the superiors will give them red packages (lai see) with monetary gifts and wish them well. The groom's family will then throw a huge feast (if they can afford it) for the friends and relatives to celebrate the wedding. All along, the spokeswoman will oversee the whole process and keep toasting the couple.

After the meal, the newly wed couple will return to the bridal room and some naughty friends may tag-along and play tricks on the groom. When all is done, the couple will drink and toast and the spokeswoman will offer sweets and fruits to the couple to wish them long life and lots of kids (!). Then, the couple will finaly be left with themselves and the groom can take off the red cloth that covers the bride's face.

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II. Preparation for the wedding

IIa. Setting up the Bridal Bed

After the groom's family has selected a 'good day' as the wedding day, a man who's considered to have had good fortune all through his life will be hired to move the bridal bed to the right place. Then a lady who's considered to have had good fortune [with healthy and living husband and sons] will make the bed and place certain good fortune food and fruits on the bed. Then the bed will be left untouched until the day of the wedding.

IIb. The Bride's Gifts for the Groom

The bride's gifts for the groom will either arrive a couple of days before the wedding day or if she's a relatively long-distance bride, she'll bring along the gifts with her maids as she arrive at the groom's home on wedding day.

The bride's gifts usually consists of valuable jewelry and precious stones, kitchen utensils, proper bridal linen such as sheets, pillow covers and clothes. In some area, the bride's family is expected to furnish the bridal except for the bridal bed. There's a saying that if the bride supplies the bridal bed, then the family is practically giving the bride away for free.

IIc. Combing Hair

The night before the wedding, both the bride and the groom needs to find a 'good fortune' woman and man to comb their hair in his/her home respectively. Both the bride and the groom needs to take shower before the event, change to some fresh new underwear and incense needs to be burnt. The bride also needs to sit next to a window where the moon can be seen. Their hair needs to be combed four times and each has a special meaning:

The first combing symbolizes: from beginning till the end
The second combing symbolizes: harmony from now till old age
The third combing symbolizes: sons and grandsons all over the place
The fourth combing summaries good wealth and a long-lasting marriage.

The whole action also symbolizes the adulthood of the couple. If either has been married before, then the combing event can be skipped for that person.

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III. Wedding Day Activities

IIIa. Wedding Day: picking up the Bride

On the day of the wedding, the groom will send a carriage over to the bride's family to bring the bride home. The carriage is decorated in red and is carried by four servants. Musicians will accompany the procession and they will play wedding music all the way. A lot of gifts are also brought to the bride's family at the same time.

At the bride's home, the bride will put on her bright red wedding gown and the bride's parents will give her jewelry to wear.

IIIb. Bride Leaving Home

As the groom's procession arrives, the groom's spokeswoman will enter the bride's house and will carry the bride on her back. The bride cannot touch the ground with her feet until she arrives at the groom's house. In some regions, the bride's relatives will throw rice into the air, hoping that the chickens around will eat the rice instead of pecking at the bride. Sometimes, a red umbrella is used to shield the bride as the opening of the umbrella will symbolize her bringing many descendants to the groom's family. As the bride leaves the house, her parents and her relatives will bid her farewell as she rides the carriage and leaves home. Wealthy brides often have servant girls who will follow her to the groom's family and continue to serve her. These maids are known as ones who 'accompany the marriage'.

IIIc. Bride Arriving at the Groom's Home

After the bride arrive at the groom's house, the couple will again worship the ancestors and worship the heavens and earth. Then they will serve tea to the groom's family according the their seniority and the relatives will give them red packets or bridal jewelry in return.

IIId. The Wedding Banquet

To celebrate the marriage, the groom's family will throw a wedding feast as large as they can afford. In the old days, some villagers may use up to seven continuous days to entertain the relatives during a wedding. Every night, delicious food is being served to all the guests.

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IV. Post Wedding Activities

IVa. The Bride Returning Home after 3 Days

Three days after the wedding, the bride is expected to return to her family. The bride will bring along roasted pig and gifts for the family. Some regions require that the groom accompany her while some didn't. Nonetheless, this is probably the last chance the bride gets to see her parents. Therefore, she will bring along a lot of gifts for the family and she may even stay for a couple of days or even more.

As a tradition, the bride's family will also return part of the gifts to the groom's family as a courtesy. Some regional custom requires that the family should return the head and tail of the roasted pig to the groom's family symbolizing the good beginning and end of the wedding.

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This is an experimental page and I have tried to be as accurate as possible in the traditions section but I certainly do not guarantee all of it to be 100% correct. Therefore, if you have some suggestions or comments, please feel free to let Shirley know and I'll try to correct my mistakes. Much of the modern customs part is personal choice and experience so they are by no means the golden rule for preparing a wedding. Afterall, its' your... eh...uhm....sorry, your parents' wedding, so they can do whatever they want to and then call it a tradition. :)

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Last Updated: Feb 15, 02