Chinese Wedding Traditions
INTRODUCTION: Purpose (and Limitations!) of This Summary
The following summary of traditional Chinese wedding customs was prepared
in response to questions from visitors to this site. It is by no means
a scholarly work, nor does the author claim any special expertise. Moreover,
there were variations across Chinas vast expanse from region to region
and even village to village. Presumably, there were also significant differences
reflecting the brides and grooms wealth and social status. So what
follows below must be seen as only a composite of many variations of wedding
rituals that were in practice in the past.
Disclaimer: This page is sponsored solely by the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, has never been part of a commercial site, and has no connection with a commercial site.
Costa, Shu Shu. Wild Geese and Tea: An Asian-American Wedding Planner, NY: Riverhead Books, 1997.
Hsu, Francis L.K. Under the Ancestors Shadow: Kinship, Personality,
and Social Mobility in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
Family and Kinship in Chinese Society. Edited by Maurice Freedman.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1970.
Jochim, Christian. Chinese Religions: A Cultural Perspective.
Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986.
Lin, Hsiang Ju, and Lin, Tsuifeng. Chinese Gastronomy. New York,
NY: Pyramid Publications, 1972
Local Traditional Chinese Wedding. Edited by Robert Lam Ping-fai.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong Museum of History, 1986.
We consider this a work in progress that our viewers can improve through
their feedback. Please send your comments and recommendations for additions
and corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
HISTORY: Over 2,400 Years of Tradition
Systemization of apparently pre-existing elements of traditional Chinese
wedding ceremony is generally credited to scholars of the Warring
States period ,
402-221 B.C.Three venerable texts, The Book of Rites, The
Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial, and the Baihu Tong outline
the Three Covenants and the Six Rites, that were considered necessary elements
of a marriage. However, the full ritual was so complicated that even within
the span of the Warring States period, the etiquette underwent changes
What remained constant were the chief objectives:
joining and enhancing the two families and ensuring succession with numerous
descendants. Reverence to parents and ancestors, omens to encourage fertility
and wealth, financial and social obligations contracted by both families
at the betrothal, extensive gift giving etiquette, and the
brides incorporation into her husbands family are recurring elements.
ANCIENT MARRIAGE CUSTOMS
The process began with an elaborate marriage proposal and acceptance.
This process was placed in the hands of a go-between, who acted as a buffer
between the two parties a role similar to that of a real estate agent
today. The important parties in proposal and betrothal negotiations were
the parents of the prospective bride and groom, rather than the bride and
Marriage was for continuing the ancestral line and creating alliances between families ; too important a duty to be left in the rash hands of the young," Costa explains.
When the boys parents identified a likely bride-to-be, they would send
the go-between to present gifts to the girls
parents and to sound out their feelings about the match. If the proposal
was well-received, the go-between would obtain the date and hour of
the girls birth recorded on a formal document.
The grooms family would place this document on the ancestral altar
for three days. If no inauspicious omens, e.g. quarrels between the parents
or a loss of property, took place within that time, the parents would give
the information to a astrological expert
to confirm that the young woman and their son would make a good match.
If the boys family found the horoscope to be favorable, they gave the
boys birth date and hour to the go-between to bring to the girls family,
who would go through the same process.
Only after both outcomes were favorable, would
the two families arrange to meet. Finally face-to-face, each family evaluated
the other in terms of appearance, education, character, and social position.
If both were satisfied they would proceed to the betrothal.
First both sets of parents exchanged family credentials as tokens of
intention. Then, after extensive bargaining,
the two families would arrive at the amount of money and goods that would
make up the gift to the girls family. After presenting engagement
tokens, the go-between would ask the brides family to chose among
severalauspicious wedding dates suggested
by the boys family and also set a date for presenting betrothal gifts.
The boys family presented betrothal
gifts of money and significant items such as tea, "Dragon
(male) and Phoenix (female)" bridal cakes, pairs of male and female
poultry, sweetmeats and sugar, wine and tobacco, accompanied by an itemized
statement of these gifts. Tea was such a primary part of these gifts in
some areas that they were known collectively as cha-li, that is,
"tea presents." The girls family reciprocated with gifts of
food and clothing.
It was customary for the girls family to distribute the bridal
cakes they received from the boys family to friends and relatives
as a form of announcement and invitation to the wedding feast. The number
of cakes given to each was established according to a rigid etiquette,
on the basis of seniority and degree of intimacy. Those who received the
bridal cakes, were expected to present congratulatory gifts to the girls
The boys familys gifts acknowledged the parents efforts in raising
the girl, and by accepting the gifts, the girls
family pledged her to the boys. It is interesting to note that the
bride was given to the family rather than the groom alone. Although the
bride and groom probably had not met yet, betrothal
was considered binding unless both families agreed to annul the contract.
Several days after the presentation of the betrothal gifts, the girls
family sent porters with an inventoried dowry
to the boys house. The dowry consisted of practical items, including a
chamber pot, filled for the occasion with fruit and strings of coins. This
procession gave the girls family the opportunity to display both their
social status and their love for their daughter, and wealthy parents often
included serving girls to attend their daughter in her new home.
Betrothals generally lasted for a year or two, although child betrothals
would last until the children had grown to marriageable age.
Preparing for the Wedding Day
Retreating to the Cock Loft
In preparation for her impending departure, the bride-to-be retreated
from the ordinary routine and lived in seclusion in a separate part of
the house with her closest friends. During this period, the young women
sang laments, mourning the brides separation from her family and cursing
the go-between ; as well as the grooms family and even the girls own
parents. Since this extended sleep over often took place in the cock
loft, the brides emergence on her wedding day was sometimes referred to
as "coming out of the cock loft."
Installing the Bridal Bed
Preparation on the part of the groom involved the
installation of the bridal bedon the
day before the wedding. A propitious hour and a good luck woman or good
luck man, that is a man or women with many children and living mates,
were selected to install a newly purchased bed. (The installation ceremony
consisted of merely moving the bed slightly; the actual work was done by
servants or friends.)
After the bed was in place, children were invited onto the bed as an
omen of fertility ; the more, the merrier. For the same reason, the bed
was scattered with red dates, oranges, lotus seeds, peanuts, pomegranates
and other fruits. Part of the fun was watching the children scramble for
Day of the Wedding
The "Hair Dressing" Ritual of the
bride and the "Capping" Ritual of the groom symbolized their
initiation into adulthood and were important parts of the wedding preparations.
Red, symbolic of joy, featured prominently in the
clothing and other ritual objects pertaining to the wedding.
The "Hair Dressing" Ritual
At dawn on her wedding day (or the night before), the bride bathed in
water infused with pumelo, a variety of grapefruit, to cleanse her of evil
influences ; and one suspects as a cosmetic to soften her skin in the
manner of contemporary alphahydroxls. She put on new underclothes and sat
before lit dragon-and-phoenix candles.
A good luck woman attended the bridal preparations. She spoke auspicious
words while dressing the brides hair in the style of a married woman.
After her hair was styled, the bride emerged
from her retreat. She was carried to the main hall on the back of the good
luck woman or her most senior sister-in-law. There she donned a jacket
and skirt and stepped into a pair of red shoes, placed in the center
of a sieve. The brides face was covered with either a red
silk veil or a curtain of tassels or beads that hung from the bridal
Phoenix crown. (The photo below was taken at the mock wedding at a prior
years Chinese Summer Festival.
After completing her wedding preparations, the
bride bowed to her parents and to the ancestral tablets and awaited
the arrival of the bridal procession from the grooms house.
The "Capping" Ritual
Dressed in a long gown, red shoes and a red silk sash
with a silk ball on his shoulder, the groom knelt at the family altar while
his father placed a cap decorated with cypress leaves on his head.
The groom bowed first before the tablets of Heaven and Earth and
his ancestors, then to his parents and the assembled family members.
His father removed the silk ball from the sash and placed it on top of
the bridal sedan chair.
The Procession from the Grooms House to Obtain the Bride
The dim of firecrackers, loud gongs and drums marked the start of the
procession from the grooms home. The groom led the procession accompanied
by a child as an omen of his future sons, and the bridal
sedan chair was proceeded by attendants with lanterns and banners,
musicians, and a dancing lion or unicorn. According to Hsiang, "Several
decades ago, when there was a wedding in Fukien, the groom would to the
brides house to fetch her, taking with him the bridal chair, which was
completely covered with red satin and fresh flowers. He himself made the
journey there and back in a blue and yellow teak sedan chair. "
On arriving at the brides house, the grooms party was met by the brides
friends, who would not surrender the bride until they were satisfied
by red packets of money, ang pau from the grooms representative.
This was the occasion of much good-natured haggling before the two parties
could reach an agreement.
In some cases, the groom would take dinner with the brides family,
and receive a pair of chopsticks and two wine goblets wrapped in red
paper, symbolic of his receiving the joy of the family in the person of
their daughter. In some regions, he would be offered sweet longan tea,
two hard-boiled eggs in syrup and transparent noodles. Another variation
was the grooms partaking of soup with a soft-boiled egg, the yolk of which
he was expected to break, arguably symbolic of breaking the brides ties
with her family.
The Brides Journey to the Grooms House
The good luck woman or a dajin, employed by the brides family to
look after the bride, carried the bride on her
back to the sedan chair. Another attendant might shield the bride with
a parasol while a third tossed rice at the sedan
chair. Sometimes the bride was borne out in a wooden cage with her feet
padlocked ; presumably a remnant from rougher times with extremely reluctant
A sieve, shai-tse, which would strain out evil, and a metallic
mirror, king, which would reflect light, were suspended at the rear
of the brides sedan to protect her from evil
influence. The bride might also attach a special mirror to her garment,
which she would not remove until she was safely seated upon the marriage
Firecrackers were set off to frighten away evil spirits as the bride
departed in the sedan chair. The
physical movement symbolized the transfer
of the bride from her parents family to her husbands.
Great care was taken to ensure that no inauspicious influence would
affect the marriage. The female attendants who
escorted the bride to her new home were chosen with particular care that
the horoscope animals of their birth years were compatible with that of
the bridegroom. The sedan chair itself was heavily curtained to prevent
the bride from inadvertently glimpsing an unlucky sight, e.g. a widow,
a well, or even a cat. Attendants scattered grain or beans, symbols of
fertility, before her.
Arriving at the Grooms House
Once again, firecrackers were set off just before the procession arrived.
A red mat was placed before the sedan chair for the bride lest her feet
touch the bare earth as she dismounted. All the household would be waiting
to receive her.
The bride was required to step over a saddle or a lit
stove to cross the threshold, since the words for "saddle"
and "tranquillity" sound the same, ngan, and the fire
would cast out of evil influences. An attendant might immediately place
a heap of rice in a sieve over or near the bride. If the bride did not
wear a lucky mirror, one might be used at this time to flash light upon
the bride. In some regions, a grain measure and a string of of copper coins
were laid out as talismans of prosperity.
After these rituals took place, the
groom could finally raise the red scarf and view the brides face.
In contrast to the elaborate preparations, the wedding
ceremony itself was simple. The bride and groom were conducted to the
family altar, where they paid homage to
Heaven and Earth, the family ancestors and the Kitchen God, Tsao-Chün.
Tea, generally with two lotus seeds or two red
dates in the cup, was offered to the grooms parents.
Then the bride and groom bowed to each other. This completed the marriage
ceremony, except in some regions, where both also drank wine from the same
goblet, ate sugar molded in the form of a rooster, and partook of the wedding
(See Also: Contemporary Chinese Wedding Tea Ceremony.)
The Nuptial Chamber
Immediately after the ceremony, the couple were led to the bridal chamber,
where both sat on the bed. In some areas, honey and wine were poured into
two goblets linked by a red thread. The bride and groom took a few sips
and then exchanged cups and drank it down. On the day of the wedding (and
sometimes for the next three days), the bed chamber
was open to visitors, who were given to teasing the young couple with
The Wedding Banquets
Generally, separate wedding feasts were given by the parents of the
bride and the groom for their respective friends and families. Even at
the feast, men and women sat separately. There could be a single feast
for each or a series of feasts over several days. However, the most important
feast was that given the grooms family on the day of the wedding. It was
generally considered as public recognition of the union.
(See Also: Contemporary Chinese Wedding Banquet.)
Day After the Wedding
On the day after the wedding, the bride awoke
early to attend honor the ancestors at dawn. It was only then that
she was then formally introduced to the grooms relatives and friends.
As she knelt before each of the older relatives,
she received a small gift. The brides parents-in-law gave her a title
according to her husbands seniority in the family hierarchy.
Three Days After the Wedding
In general, three days after the wedding, the couple paid a visit to
the brides family home, where the bride is now
received as a guest.
Contributed By: I. Rutledge
CONTEMPORARY CHINESE WEDDING CUSTOMS
The application of ancient
customs in contemporary Chinese weddings is of great interest of many of our visitors. The following may be
helpful in applying Chinese traditions to contemporary weddings.
Selecting an Auspicious Wedding Date:
Auspicious days are subject to interpretation by fortune tellers
that perform the analysis based on ones birth date (day and hour) after
consultation with the Chinese almanac. Almanacs containing predictions for the entire year are sold at the
beginning of the Lunar New Year by street vendors and in book stores. These paperback books are
approximately two inches thick with a wealth of information about Chinese beliefs.
It is said to be the oldest continuous publication known. Different versions are published in Taiwan, Hong
Kong and mainland China, but unfortunately an English version is not available.
In the Chinese community it is considered bad form
if an individual consults the almanac and performs a self analysis. That is
why a fortune teller or Fung Suey [Feng Shui] expert is consulted. They usually can also provide
horoscope information in advance of the publication of the almanac.
The 15 day period from the
middle to the end of the seventh lunar month is considered inauspicious because that is time of
the Hungry Ghost Festival when the gates of Hell are opened and the lost
spirits are allowed to wonder the earth. They should not be invited to your
Contributed By: Lim Mar
Contemporary Chinese Wedding Tea Ceremony
Contemporary Chinese Wedding Banquet
Chinese Lion Peformance at Wedding Reception
Happiness: Each half of the symbol is the standard character for happiness,
written "hsi" or "xi," and pronounced
something like "she" in Mandarin (high level tone ; the first
tone). Therefore, two "hsi" graphs together represents
the wish for the two young newlyweds to have happiness together. The double
happiness graph (pronounced "shuang-hsi" in Mandarin)
is a special Chinese character used for marital happiness. Its not used
in regular Chinese writing or printing. (Source: Chris Jochim, Comparative
Religious Studies Program, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA)