Chinese Wedding Traditions

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Photo Credits:
Ceremony Decor: Laurie Bailey Photography
Budget-friendly Ideas: Lisa Lefkowitz Photography
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Chinese Wedding Traditions

Chinese wedding traditions are as varied and complex as China is vast. In addition, during the centuries of ethnic Chinese migration throughout Asia, traditions have evolved and changed due to a myriad of regional and cultural influences. The traditions discussed below offer a preliminary overview for couples who wish to include elements of their Chinese heritage in their wedding plans.

Family First. The best place to begin your plans is with your own family. Discuss your desire to include Chinese traditions with your relatives who have an understanding of such matters. Parents may have included culturally significant elements in their wedding and would be honored and touched that you wish to include similar practices in your ceremony. Our older relations are our best links to our past and can offer knowledge we may not be able to find elsewhere, especially about the region of our ancestry and its unique traditions. Don’t hesitate to ask them to share their expertise. If they don’t have all the answers you’re looking for, they will likely be able to point you in the right direction. If you were raised in a community with significant Chinese influences, you have no doubt attended weddings that included Chinese elements. Search your memory for the points that moved you most, then learn how to include them in your own wedding.

Ancient and Modern. The current Asian-American wedding often melds Western customs with elements of traditional Asian celebrations. Today’s Chinese-American bride may not agree with certain customs and decide not to include them in her ceremony, or the couple may choose to celebrate in Chinese style on one day and Western style on another. This is a particularly common practice if only one member of the couple is Chinese. Remember, it’s your wedding to plan any way you wish. Include or exclude elements, old and new, in the way that is most satisfying to you as a couple.

The Basis. Carried forward for more than 2,400 years, a set of traditions form the basis from which most modern Chinese ceremonies and the events surrounding them are interpreted. Known as the "Three Letters and Six Etiquette," the procedures mainly concern formal arrangements between the two families that are being joined, and are rarely carried out in full today.
Three Letters -- letters exchanged between the two families.
  • The groom’s family sends this letter to the bride’s upon the announcement of the engagement. The letter formalizes the engagement and is sent with several gifts.
  • A letter is sent by the groom’s family along with a more formal collection of gifts. This missive is more of a gift list than a letter of communication.
  • The bride’s family sends a wedding letter to the groom’s family on the wedding day, formalizing the fact that the bride is being brought into a new family.

Six Etiquette -- six customs carried out before the couple is married.
  • An emissary sent by the groom’s family to persuade the bride’s family of the groom’s interest in their daughter.
  • The groom’s family requests the bride’s birth date and time. The couple’s birthdates are given to a fortune teller who decides if the couple is a good match.
  • If compatible, the groom’s family sends gifts to the bride’s family.
  • The groom’s family sends more formal gifts.
  • The fortune teller selects a wedding date.
  • On the wedding day, the groom fetches the bride from her family’s home and brings her to his family home where the ceremony is performed. The couple serves tea to the groom’s parents followed by a wedding banquet.

The Evolution. In the past, the procedures mentioned above were considered essential and were followed for centuries. From them, the elements of most modern ceremonies are drawn. There were many other procedures and rituals followed by couples in the past that persist today. The principle vestige is the exchange of gifts between the families of the bride and groom when the engagement is announced. The groom’s family will sometimes send small, sweet cakes known as "bridal cakes" or "messenger cakes" to the bride’s family. In turn the bride will distribute the cakes to her relatives as announcements of the upcoming wedding. In addition to the gift exchange, it is quite common today for the families to join in throwing the couple an elaborate engagement party.

In place of the fortune teller, many families choose to consult a Chinese calendar to determine a "good day" for the wedding. As in days of old, the groom offers to pay for the wedding, though financial arrangements vary widely, with the bride often contributing substantially.

In the past, as part of the pre-wedding preparations, couples were expected to acquire a new bed to sleep in as a married couple. Today, most couples simply prepare a bed with new linens, often red to symbolize good luck.

The hair combing ceremony is not always performed today, but it is a lovely ritual that is meaningful and simple to perform. The night before the wedding the bride bathes and then takes a seat either in front of lit candles or within sight of moonlight. Her hair is combed by a woman (often her mother) who is considered to be fortunate in life. Her hair is combed four times.
  • The first combing symbolizes "from beginning to end."
  • The second combing means "harmony from youth through old age."
  • The third combing is a wish for many grandchildren.
  • The fourth combing offers hope for wealth and a marriage that lasts a long, long time.

The groom sometimes goes through this ceremony in his own home as well, but more often he takes part in a capping ritual symbolizing his passage into adulthood. He kneels in front of a family altar where his father places a decorated cap on his head. He bows first to the altar, and then to his family members.

On the wedding day the groom and his groomsmen arrive at the bride’s home and go through a mock bargaining session for her with her bridesmaids. The groom is often made to do funny embarrassing things such as dances or recitations before the attendants release the bride to him. The couple then serves tea to the bride’s parents. Her parents offer them a gift before they leave for the groom’s home. In the past, the bride alone would serve the tea as a parting ritual. At the groom’s home the couple serves tea to his parents and older relatives as a sign of respect, whereupon the couple receives more gifts. The families then head for the church or registrar to complete the wedding ceremony itself.

The importance of the ceremony often takes second place to the wedding banquet. For many families, the banquet offers an opportunity to repay past kindnesses of family members and friends. It is often seen as a way to renew the good fortune, respect and happiness of the whole family. As many as twelve courses are served during the couple’s banquet. Abundance is the operative word, so if you plan to attend a Chinese wedding, be prepared for a long, fun-filled evening where you’ll eat up a storm.

In addition to the traditional Western wedding gifts, couples at a Chinese wedding will be given small, red envelopes filled with money. The couple collects these packets from the guests as they visit the tables, or guests deposit the packets in a designated box. Large sums of money often accumulate, so many couples hire a security guard to watch the money box.

It is common for a Chinese bride to be married wearing either a traditional Chinese red silk dress or a Western-style white gown, but during the reception she may change clothes several times. These wardrobe changes once symbolized the opulence of her family, but now it is just for fun.