Ancient Chinese Wedding Traditions

Marriage became a custom in China some time after 400 BC. The tremendous geographical size of the nation makes it home to many cultures and traditions but most marriage customs are similar, based on nine rituals - the three letters and six etiquettes.

At each step of the way, a matchmaker was instrumental, providing communications between families and consulting astrogical charts to ensure the compatibility of the prospective bride and groom as well as the two families. Matchmaking was a respected profession and used in all marriages.

Today's dating services play a similar role except for one very important difference - in ancient China, there was little opportunity for getting to know your future partner, since marriages were arranged by the heads of the bride and groom's families. Sometimes the couple's first meeting was on the day of their wedding, a situation most singles today would find outrageous.

Color plays a signficant role in Chinese culture, both then and now. Red is the official wedding color as it signifies joy, love, and prosperity. The color is so dominant in the full wedding ritual that the three letters were delivered in red envelopes, the wedding gifts presented in red baskets, and red was lavishly displayed at all points throughout the wedding day, including the homes of both the bride and groom and the bridal sedan. Traditional wedding dresses in China are red, too, even today.

The Proposal

When the groom's family found a prospective bride, they enlisted the services of a matchmaker. The matchmaker collected data on both families to make sure every benefit of the marriage would be known to all but to also make sure any conflicts of interest or unsavory history would be disclosed.

Once the matchmaker reported back to the groom's family bringing acceptable information, the groom's family would send a request letter to the girl's family. This, the first of three letters all sent from the groom's family to the bride's family and the first of the six etiquettes, was a formal request for matrimony.

The Betrothal

If the prospective bride's family found favor with the groom's family's request of marriage, the second etiquette would begin. This ritual involved an analysis of birthdates. Chinese astrological charts would be consulted and, based on the birthdates of both the bride and the groom, the proposal would be accepted or declined.

Once the proposal was accepted by the bride's family, the groom's family would suggest a bride price, the third of the six etiquettes. By establishing a bride's price, the groom's family notified the bride's family of the exact nature of the transfer of family wealth that would be paid to the bride's family. Depending on the groom's family's economic or social situation, the bride price was paid in money, status, land, jewels, livestock, or any other objects of wealth the bride's family would accept.

Preparation for the Wedding Day

Determining the wedding day itself constitutes the fifth of the six etiquettes. Chinese astrological charts were consulted to identify the day expected to bring the most luck to the newlyweds.

Shortly before the wedding day arrived, the groom's family would present the bride's family with an elaborate gift of foods and sweets, accompanied by objects of religious and cultural significance. The wedding gifts were so elaborate that, by the time of the wedding, all the bride's personal belongings would be in place at the groom's house, awaiting her own arrival.

This fourth of six etiquettes, presentation of the wedding gifts, was preceded by the gift letter announcing their imminent arrival. This gift letter was the second of the three letters.

The bride's family would send gifts, too, on the third day before the wedding. These gifts would be presented in red containers and wrappings.

Because marriage meant leaving her family and former life behind, the bride would live for a while in seclusion, traditionally in the family's cock loft, with only her closest friends. Here, she would officially mourn, and often curse, the loss of her former life, including that of her family and friends.

One day before the wedding, the groom was charged with officially installing the bridal bed. The time was carefully selected to influence fertility and a 'good luck' man or woman would preside over the installation. To qualify as a good luck man or woman, the person would have been someone with many children and many living husbands or wives.

Children were invited to the bridal bed installation as an omen for fertility. The more children at the installation ritual, the more fertile the couple was expected to be. To ensure happy, well-fed children, foods that represented abundance and fertility, such as red dates, lotus seeds, oranges, and pomegranates, were strewn across the bed for the children's pleasure.

The Wedding Day

At the break of dawn on her wedding day, the bride's hair dressing ritual began. To begin it, the bride bathed in water infused with pomelo, a grapefruit-like fruit thought to cleanse away evil spirits. After bathing, she donned new clothes and meditated in the presence of candles representing the dragon and the phoenix. She was in attendance throughout this process by a good luck woman, who then dressed her hair in a new style, representing that of a married woman, and she would never again wear her hair styled as that of a maiden.

The good luck woman added her blessings by repeating words and assurances of good luck for the bride's new life as she dressed the bride's hair. For added luck, the bride often wore a mirror attached to her clothing, which would reflect evil spirits away from her, and she would not remove the mirror until she was seated safely and securely on the marriage bed.

Meanwhile, at the groom's home, he was being dressed by his parents in a long gown adorned with a red silk sash crossed in an 'X' across his chest. A silk ball would be placed at his shoulder and red shoes on his feet.

Once dressed, the groom would kneel at the family altar, where his father ceremoniously placed a cypress-leaf cap on his head. Here, the groom would bow before sacred tablets representing Heaven, Earth, and his ancestors before bowing to his parents and any family members present for this part of the ritual. At this time, the groom's father would remove the silk ball from the groom's shoulder and place it on the bridal sedan, a portable chair, featuring a seat for the bridal couple, which was carried on the shoulders of his friends and family members.

The bridal sedan was adorned with a sieve to strain out any evil that might come along and a mirror to reflect light and evil spirits away from the bridal couple. It was covered in red curtains to shield the bride's view of anything along the way that might bring bad marriage luck to her, such as a widow, a well, or a cat.

Fireworks, gongs, and drums heralded the wedding procession of the groom to his bride's home, all included to frighten away any evil spirits that might be following the groom into his new life. Accompanying the groom would be a male child, representing the sons the groom desired from the marriage. Attendants followed, bearing lanterns and banners. Musicians accompanied them, too, as did a dancing unicorn or lion, all to attract good luck while chasing away the bad.

The bride's friends would be waiting for the groom's procession to arrive at her house, where they would symbollically and jovially object to surrendering the bride to him until they'd been appeased with red packets, called ang pau, filled with money.

It was here that the groom's family would present the third, and last, letter to the bride's family. This wedding letter signified offical acceptance of the bride into the family of the groom.

Depending upon family status, the bride's family would invite the groom and his party for a small feast comprised of foods symbolic of a long and happy marriage. One common dish was soup containing a soft-boiled egg. By breaking the egg yolk, the groom was symbollically breaking all ties the bride had to her family.

Once the meal was over, the bride's good luck woman would cover the bride's face with a red scarf to prevent her from catching any glimpses of evil along the procession's route to the groom's home. After placing the red scarf, the good luck woman would hoist the bride onto her back and carry her to the waiting sedan chair. It was considered bad luck for the bride's feet to touch the bare ground until after she was married.

Once again, fireworks, gongs, drums, and music serenaded the betrothed couple to cast away evil spirits while luring the auspicious ones.

The bride's procession to the groom's home was accompanied by specially selected friends of the bride. To be chosen, each friend had to have been born in a year compatible with the year the groom was born, based on the animal symbols of the Chinese zodiac. These attendents would strew rice or beans along the way to welcome spirits of fertility.

Arrival at the groom's house was traditionally met with the groom's entire household waiting to greet the new bride. Upon her arrival, someone would roll out a red mat so the bride's feet never touched bare ground as she left the sedan to enter her new family's home.

In most Chinese dialects, the word for saddle sounds like the word for tranquility. To ensure a tranquil marriage, the bride would step over a saddle placed at the threshhold of the groom's family home. Where status allowed, grain and strings of copper coins were strewn around the house to attract prosperity.

Once safely inside the groom's home, he was finally allowed to remove the red scarf hiding his bride's face.

The Wedding

The wedding ceremony itself was the last, and perhaps simplest, of the six etiquettes but this etiquette ritual would officially begin when the bride and her family left her home for the procession to the groom's family's home. Only the bridal couple and their immediate families attended the ceremony itself.

Many brides, in ancient times as well as today, hide their faces behind fans during the wedding ceremony. This custom comes from the mariage creation myth, when Nuwa and her brother, Fu Xi, were the only people in the world and they wanted to get married but felt shame at the prospect. The couple climbed into Kunlun Shan, the mountain range in northern Tibet. There, they asked permission from the heavens to marry, asking that a mist surround them as a sign of approval. Immediately, the couple was engulfed in a mist and soon married. Shy Nuwa hid timidly behind a fan to cover her blushing face as the two were married, with blessings from heaven.

The wedding ceremony itself consisted of the bride and groom facing the family altar where they asked the blessings of Heaven, Earth, family ancestors, and Tsao-Chun, the Kitchen God. After asking for blessings, the bride and groom closed the wedding ceremony with a simple bow to each other before the bride served tea to the groom's parents. The tea contained two lotus seeds or two red dates and the bride served it to her new in-laws as a demonstration of her willingness to be a part of their family.

Where finances and status allowed, the newlyweds might drink wine from a shared goblet or enjoy sugar candy shaped like a rooster.

The Post Wedding Ritual

After the wedding ceremony, the newly married couple went immediately to the bridal chamber, where they both climbed into the bridal bed. Some ancient Chinese newlyweds shared honey and wine served from two goblets linked together with red thread, sipping first before exchanging glasses to finish the wine.

The bridal chamber remained open to all visitors during the entire wedding day and sometimes this open visitation lasted as long as three days. No doubt, a great deal of good-natured but bawdy encouragement came at this part of the extended wedding festival.

The formal wedding ceremony and arrival at the bridal chamber were followed by a very formal wedding banquet, called 'joyful wine.' During this feast, which recognized publicly the union of the bride and groom, as many courses as the groom's family could afford were served to one and all. It was not unusual for both the bride's and the groom's families to host several such feasts in the days immediately following the wedding. Proper wedding protocol meant all the men dined together and all the women did the same, although there was no mixing between the genders.

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