When most of us think weddings, we conjure images of the elegant white dress, the dashing groomsmen, perfumed bouquets and demure bridesmaids… but for those of us with different historic roots, there is often…well, a little more than meets the eye. The wedding day (婚姻) in the Chinese culture , is an ornamental affair. It is a celebration rich in symbolic gestures and entrenched in antiquated customs.
Raised in Australia, with a Malaysian-Chinese ancestry, the cultural mishmash that is me grew up finding equal comfort in satiating after school munchies with dim-sims or vegemite-cheese toasties alike.
My happy East-West dual childhood: fruit picking with dad in the Australian summer; then Island Life: Playing the day away in Penang.
“Banana”. My Malaysian cousins lovingly teased me shushing me into silence as Bello bellowed in laughter. “They called you yellow on the outside” he laughed roaringly ruffling my hair in a head-lock. Our inability to stay inconspicuous, my unconvincing Aussie-twanged-Hokkien and our combined Ang Moh–rowdiness successfully incurred double the local entrance fees to everything as we tried to tour our way around my island home-town earlier this year. Cultural differences indeed. So now, here it comes, Chinese Wedding Customs HACKED for the modern East meets West affair ; ) xox.
In the light of differences, Chinese weddings are not necessarily about the couple getting married. Surprise! They are about celebrating the entire family, the people who raised the couple and supported them throughout their lives. They are about celebrating the different generations of family…and….the weddings… are, well. Relatively huge.
Our Wonderful Wedding Day, surrounded by everyone we love most in the world ♡
They are also rather poetic, riddled with various traditions designed to teach the tenacity, eye to detail, hard work and inspire the values to make a marriage weather the test of time.
Test of Time: Throwback Snap of our first year dating ♡♡
In modern Chinese customs, a trusted expert who is well-versed in reading the 10,000 year Chinese almanac enables a couple to pick an auspicious day and time for the wedding ceremony and reception.
An excerpt of the Almanac that looks very convincingly confusing!
The day and time is chosen based specifically on the birth dates, birth times, and birth locations of the bride and groom as well as their parents (I guess you could think of it as, extremely advanced zodiac :p). By choosing the best wedding date in this way, the couple creates happiness, health, harmony and prosperity for both the newly joined families.
So, where did we get this antiquated custom performed you ask? Well in true East-meets-West fashion, we had our almanac read in… STARBUCKS, Clarke Quay of course ! (Read more?!… HERE). Then after our auspicious wedding dates were sorted, of course we found ourselves the time to, swim with dolphins, head to universal studios, dine in an aquarium. Hey, well, we only get One Life you know 😉
Another important date is the Betrothal Ceremony (过大礼 Guo Dà Lǐ). A formal meeting between the couple’s parents prior to the actual wedding. Traditionally the groom’s family may present gifts such as cakes, fruit or jewellery that may symbolise prosperity. Typically anything gifted is in even numbers to wish for good things to double.
Customarily the cakes gifted to the bride’s family are called Xi Bing. These days the cakes are also distributed as a way of announcing the engagement, either at the Engagement Party, or hand in hand with invitations or save-the-date cards.
Not quite traditional : Our Tim Tam Engagement Party Cake ♡
The night before the wedding, a new bed, along with pillows, comforters and sheets is made and placed at an angle to the wall. The bed spread is laced with tempting sweets and a young boy is asked to jump on the bed to give fortune.
After that, a “Hair-Combing Ceremony” can be performed at an auspicious hour to bless the couple with harmony and unity in their new life together, as well as wishes for longevity and a blessed family life. A red string is then ceremoniously tied into the bride’s hair. Thereafter it is tradition that the bed is left untouched except for by the wedding couple on their wedding day.
The Bride “Abduction“
The big day usually starts bright and early. In order to pick-up his bride, tradition has it that the groom and his brotherhood of groomsmen must go through a series of honour tests to ascertain the virtue and honourable intentions of the groom.
I.e a cheeky Venus versus Mars feud between the Bridesmaids and Groomsmen.. :p
The concept that actions speak louder than words is highly applicable here as the groom must demonstrate to the girl’s side the love he has for his bride (think truth or dare in front of the in-laws). Today, the bridal pick-up challenges are allocated to the bridal party (so no martial-art sword-swinging valour required) and may contain a variety of playful tasks, from reciting poems, singing songs, answering soppy questions and in short, is a chance for the gals to plainly bully the boys.
Me and my beautiful s.w.a.t team of bridesmaids
At lucky last, the games come to a close and a red envelope gets cheekily negotiated out of the (tortured) groomsmen by the (often merciless) bridesmaids. In a way, it is a modern take on the symbolism of a bridal dowry. Nowadays, that red envelope may have contributed to a reimbursement towards the Hens Party for the bride which may have already been thrown weeks beforehand.
One of the very important aspects of a Chinese wedding is the tea ceremony. This usually takes place after the door games (aka bride-abduction) either on the day of the wedding or the day before. The tea ceremony symbolises respect for the elders and involves the couple serving tea to the elder members of both sides of the family. In return gifts may be exchanged to bless the couple with tokens of prosperity and good fortune.
After entering the home, Ceremonial Prayers may be performed. The Bride and Groom may exchange nuptial cups and perform ceremonial bows. Firstly, to Heaven and Earth, then to the ancestors and the parents of the bride and groom. After the ceremonial prayers, a sweet glutinous rice ball soup is often served for the bride and groom to serve each other before the 奉茶 tea ceremony commences.
The tea ceremony is an official ritual to introduce the newlyweds to each other’s family and a custom for newlyweds to show appreciation and respect to their elders. The formality of kneeling before elders to serve tea is interspersed with hugs, jokes and laughter in the crowd and there is a good energy and happiness with the joining of two families.
Our Wedding Day Tea in an ornate dragon cannister
The tea served for a wedding tea ceremony is typically brewed with red dates and dried sweet fruits. Tea is presented to the relatives in sequence of seniority and the bride and groom must call each elder by their title as a sign of deep respect (see Chinese Family Titles).
Our Wedding Tea Ceremony: Bello and I serving Chek-Ma and Chek-Koong.
For most people, registering their marriage or taking vows in a church ceremony marks the official marriage of the couple. However, in Chinese culture, a marriage is never considered “official” until the tea ceremony. In other words, in the Chinese culture, it doesn’t really matter what the law thinks of the marriage status, more importantly, the real acknowledgement as husband and wife, needs the blessings of the family and the elders.
Traditionally Chinese brides wore a red wedding gown, “Qún guà” (群褂). Nowadays, with weddings where East-meets-West, brides may wear a white gown through the day and at the reception and elect to conduct the tea ceremony in a cheongsam (above and below), hanfu or the Qún guà.
When a groom is ready to fetch his bride, he could employ the services of a boisterous lion, firecrackers and drums for a marching entry to scare away anymischievous spirits that may be lurk. The Groom’s Procession includes the groomsmen and if it is a very traditional affair- lanterns, banners and musicians. The ornately decorated lions lead the way, to the beat of the drums. Upon arrival, the bridesmaids good-naturedly hold the bride hostage and the games then begin!
Bello and I, feeding the lions for luck
Carriage and Veiled Luck
In ancient times, a wooden carriage veiled in red fabrics were used to conceal the bride to the groom’s home. Now, tulle draped wedding cars is the norm. The concealment of the bride is still practiced however and now comprises of a modern red or white lace veil, just as in Western Ceremonies. The one thing to be careful of, avoid lifting the bride’s veil before the groom, as lifting the veil twice, symbolizes the bride “getting married” twice!
Also, as further concealment when the bride enters or exits any wedding vehicles, an umbrella may be held over the bride’s head to protect the couple from negative energy. By coincidence it provides a welcome shelter from the rain of rice that is thrown by family and friends to bless the union with abundance.
When the bride and groom enter the family home for the tea ceremony, some people including pregnant women may hide away for the moment the bride and groom enters the house. The reason some folks do this is because on the day itself, the Four Pillars of their birth time (生辰八字 Shēng Chén Bā Zì), clashes with the wedding date. To minimize bad fortune, they avoid looking at the bride and groom as they enter the house. It is often believed that on this day, the bride and groom have very strong “Qi” (气) or “lifeforce” and ancient customs believed it to be harmful to an unborn child.
For the Very Traditional !
Within 4 months of a wedding, the bride and groom are supposed to avoid attending other weddings, children’s birthdays or funerals. If the groom’s eldest brother is unmarried, the bride must enter the groom’s home under his pants as a sign of respect, nowadays, this is playfully done by hanging the pants of the eldest brother above the door. In the instance a woman marries before an older brother, the same practice can be observed.
Bridal Party Zodiac
It is also customary to check the animal signs of all members of the bridal party (bridesmaids and groomsmen), the ring bearer and flower girls, the little boy who jumps on your bed and basically anyone playing a role in the wedding proceedings, must all be animal signs that cannot conflict with your chosen Auspicious Wedding Date. Whilst this may sound complex, it is very simplified with the correct counsel of a professional who is able to consult the Chinese Almanac.
Most traditional Malaysian-Chinese wedding banquets (结婚宴席 “Jie Hun Yan Xi”) are similar to a Western reception, there is an MC, speeches, cake-cutting and dancing. Instead of individual ala carte meals however, the banquet usually comprises of twelve elaborate courses in total such as soup, abalone, lobster and dishes which symbolise good fortune. The number of courses savoury courses (excluding dessert) is also significant. At a Chinese wedding banquet, eight savoury dishes are usually served as the word eight, “Bā” (八), sounds like “prosperity” in the phrase “Fā Cái” (发财). Fish is also always on the menu to bless the newlyweds with abundance in their new life together, because fish, “Yú” (鱼), sounds like plentiful “Yú” (余) in Chinese. Noodles are another traditional component in wedding banquets to symbolise longevity of the union and longevity of the two newly joined lives.
If you go to a Chinese wedding banquet and are planning on gifting Li Shi (lucky money), arrive prepared with red or pink packets. If you are attending a very traditional wedding, perhaps check if you should avoid using white envelopes (which historically represents funerals). Most weddings these days do not impose colour restrictions on envelopes.
During the feast at a Malaysian-Chinese banquet, a grand toast ceremony is performed where the newlyweds make a speech and a toast to the audience “Yum Seng!” (饮 胜!, meaning ‘drink to success!’). Like “Prost” and “Salute” the bride and groom circulate the venue toasting their guests, often table by table and eye contact is considered polite. Typically, the “Yum” syllable is dragged as long as possible and finally ending with a celebratory “Seng!” In an inofficial manner, tables compete with each other for the longest cheer and the rowdiness is all part of the fun. The men, mainly get carried away and sore throats are the expectation for the morning after!
Throughout the dinner, the couple will toast from table to table, to demonstrate gratitude and respect to their guests. Chopsticks tapped against the side of a ceramic bowl or glass indicates the crowds’ demand that the groom kisses his bride. Guests will also toast other guests as a sign of good spirit and respect.
All in all, it can get fairly noisy at times! Now you know why you need so many courses- to keep up! …Oh…and watch out for those sweet older aunties and uncles, they can hold that drink better than you think and they can be merciless!
Bello and I with Aunty at my God-Bro’s Wedding the Year Before 🙂
Well now, over to you ! Do any of you have any cultural blends in your family?! I’ll bet there are a few funny stories out there about different family cultures! If so, please share! We love hearing from you guys ♥
As always, thanks for reading you guys and in case you missed our proposal story, here it is…in it’s dopey entirety!!
Lots of love and good luck to those of you also planning your wedding !!
Xox Just Oscar and Bello