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Ancient Chinese Wedding Traditions

A look at the cultural customs that shaped today's celebrations.

Photo: Union Photography

What's your wedding day lineup look like? Here, we give you the basics behind ancient wedding day customs, from bridesmaid games to the wedding banquet.

Preceremony Traditions

1) Obtaining the Bride
In Chinese culture, it was customary for firecrackers, loud gongs, and drums to mark the start of the procession (and fend off evil spirits) from the groom's home to the bride's house. The groom would lead a procession, accompanied by a child (to symbolize future sons). Attendants with lanterns, as well as banners, musicians, and a dancing lion would follow.

2) Bridesmaid Games
When the groom arrived at the bride's house, the groom's party would be met by the bride's friends, who would haggle with the groom or his representatives. They would make him perform stunts or tricks, and not "surrender" their friend until they were satisfied with red packets of money.

A lot of care was taken to ensure that no inauspicious influence would affect the marriage. The bride's attendants were chosen based on the compatibility of their horoscope animals with that of the groom's. The sedan chair -- a carriage of sorts that was carried by servants -- was heavily curtained to prevent the bride from seeing anything unlucky (a widow, a well, or a cat for example). Attendants also would scatter grain or beans, symbols of fertility, for
the couple.

3) Arriving at the Groom's House
As the couple made their way back to the groom's house, firecrackers would be set off just before the procession arrived. A red mat would be placed before the sedan chair for the bride so that her feet wouldn't have to touch the bare earth. The entire household would be waiting to receive her. The bride would be required to step over a saddle or a lit stove to cross the threshold -- the fire was thought to cast out evil influences.

Ceremonial Rites

1) The Ceremony
Chinese ceremonies are historically simple compared to other Chinese wedding elements. (In fact, the wedding ceremony was seen more as a way to announce the wedding, which was then followed by the banquet.) During the ceremony, the bride and groom would stand at the family altar, where they would pay homage to heaven and earth, the family ancestors, and the kitchen god, Tsao-Chün. Tea, usually with two lotus seeds or two red dates in each cup, would be offered to the groom's parents. Finally, the bride and groom would bow to each other -- completing the ceremony.

2) The Nuptial Chamber
Immediately following the ceremony, the couple was led to the bridal chamber, where both would sit on the bed. In some areas of China, honey and wine were poured into two goblets linked by a red thread. The bride and groom would take a few sips, then exchange cups and drink the rest.

3) Tea Ceremony
Either following the wedding ceremony or sometimes the next day, the newlyweds would serve tea to the groom's family. The couple would serve tea in order, starting with the groom's parents then proceeding from the oldest family member to the youngest. After the tea was offered and a sip was taken, the couple would receive lucky red envelopes (lai see) filled with money or jewelry. This was considered the formal introduction of the families.

The Celebration

1) Wedding Banquet
The parents of the bride and groom would often host separate wedding feasts. There might be a single feast for each family, or a series of feasts over several days. The most important feast was considered to be the one given by the groom's family on the day of the wedding. This banquet was seen as a public recognition of the union. Historically, the more lavish the display and the more food and leftovers, the more wealthy the hosts. Most of the foods commonly served were symbolic -- a whole fish would be served because the word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for plenty, meaning a wish for abundance. Serving sweet lotus seeds for dessert symbolized a wish for many children.

2) The Day after the Wedding
The day after the wedding, the bride would wake up early to honor her ancestors at dawn. It was then that she would also be formally introduced to all of the groom's relatives and friends. As she knelt before each of the older relatives, she would receive a small gift. The groom's parents would then give her a title, according to her new husband's seniority in the family.

3) Three Days After the Wedding
Three days after the wedding, the newlyweds would pay a visit to the bride's family at home. At this time, the bride would no longer be considered a part of her family, but rather a guest in her parents' house.

-- Anja Winikka

Information about the elements of ancient Chinese wedding ceremonies is generally credited to scholars of the Warring States period (402-221 B.C.). Even during this period, etiquette underwent changes and simplification and differed among provinces, cultures, and families.

Sources:
Chinese Historical and Cultural Project (CHCP.org)

Wild Geese and Tea, An Asian-American Wedding Planner by Shu Shu Costa (Riverhead Books, 1997)