The fact that I’d never met the bride or groom, apparently posed no issue for all those involved in the wedding extravaganza!
So the teeny matter, that I failed to register it was actually the Groom saying ‘Nihao’ to me at the entrance to the wedding reception and the small fact I retaliated with a cheery “Hello, how are you today?” hopefully went under the radar!! (Too late to say congratulations now!)
Surprisingly (or not) during my rather short stint in China thus far, I’ve somehow managed to find myself witnessing quite a few romantic nuptials! You may recall we inadvertently found ourselves smack bang in the middle of a wedding ceremony, in our first week in Xi’an? If you want to relive the hilarity of being a wedding crasher, click here.
So, there’s usually not much notice given for a wedding in China, with invitations delivered just a few weeks, sometimes just days before the big event!
With a couple of weeks notice for this week-day wedding, we were able to mark it in the calendar; somehow though, I missed the memo explaining that when you arrive at a wedding here in China, the first thing you do is give your gift (a small red envelope filled with crisp new notes – ideally to the tune of an auspicious number – nothing with four in it ok!) to the panel of people out the front.
Ahhh so that’s why James is ignoring the bride and groom who are waiting for us — watching as the money is earnestly counted out — in front of us! (Awkward wait while I try to erase thoughts racing through my head about whether we’ve given enough money and in the right denominations)!
It’s about now I realise the random guy that said “hi” is now standing next to the bride (you can’t miss her, she’s the one wearing the white bridal gown)! To be fair, she was actually yelling at her new husband, so I missed the ‘just married’ cues…(Hopefully it wasn’t, “is that all these loser foreigners are giving us!! I thought you said he was the big boss!!”)
I attempt to feign a few, by now, feeble congratulations and use small person as a decoy with a “Wow! look at this beautiful bride,” while the hotelier appears to be writing an essay in the wedding book! (Anytime!!)
We are then ushered (rushed) into the lavish reception area, which is typically oozing glamour – from the designer runway lined with candelabras to the elaborate backdrops; Cameras on giant booms swing by us (narrowly missing the hotelier’s head I might add)!
As flash as the room looks, many of the guests though, look like they may have just got off the couch at home.. some are wearing tracksuits, many are in jeans….most are in casual clothes. Apparently this is perfectly normal for a Chinese wedding. After all it’s just a quick lunch really, a couple of hours at best, that usually starts around noon. (Despite now knowing about this dress code, I just can’t for the life of me, bring myself to attend a wedding in jeans, not yet anyway.)
The ubiquitous bottle of Baijiu is placed on the table in it’s box, she’s flanked by big bottles of Coca Cola and Sprite. We are served tea and then it’s supposedly on to the hard stuff….(Now’s a good time to mention there are also plates of loose free-flow cigarettes at a special table just outside the ballroom, should you wish to inhale).
Families of the bride occupy two large tables at the front and their tables are often draped in red table cloths to signify their VIP status.
As soon as we are all seated….the groom gives a quick speech….(of which I have no idea what is being said, given it’s obviously all in Chinese…but I get the gist…and try to nod in appropriate places).
Pictures from the happy couple’s photo shoot flash up on big projector screens. Here in China, the wedding shoot is done weeks if not months before the big day. Couples will often go to another city or country to have these photos taken in several different outfits in many different, rather exotic locations.
Not surprising given ten million couples tie the knot every single year in China, the photogpraphy game is big business!
Whilst the ultimate goal of living ‘happily ever after’ is largely the same, the bride looks stunning in white and there’s a big celebration; the traditions and rituals that go with saying ‘I do’ are a little different.
Until a couple of generations ago, most marriages in China were arranged. Yep, that means your parents generally chose your life partner and whether you thought he or she was cute, funny, smart, romantic or simply a whizz in the kitchen, really played no part in it.
In fact, I’m told in many rural parts of China, they still have arranged marriages and there are still regular weekend “marriage markets” in places like Shanghai where parents go armed with a list of their child’s vital statistics on display, eager to find them a love match! (I’m pretty sure the child in question has no clue his or her assets are being advertised to the nation.)
Sadly, there still seems to be a stigma tied to women today in China who aren’t married by the age of around 27! They call them “Sheng Nu” or “Leftover Women!” Say what?! (This explains why my local hairdresser and his team nearly had a pink fit when I announced I’d married on the ‘other’ side of 35! Looking me up and down, they eye-balled me suspiciously, like I may be hiding some sort of third arm or leg!)
While in the Western world we can date without it necessarily leading to marriage, for Chinese, once dating became more acceptable (and dating shows took over television land)….it’s wasn’t a case of shopping around, trying on a few for size…..forget playing the field. For most, dating is serious business!… You date with the intention to marry!
And once you’ve made it clear you’re boyfriend and girlfriend, it’s crucial that both parents wholeheartedly agree with your liaison. In China, a marriage is about two families joining together, more so than just two individuals. Especially, as the children are largely responsible for looking after their parents in their old age. This is taken extremely seriously and is prioritised above most other things in life. Grandparents are also often responsible for bringing up the couple’s children.
So it seems, once the union is agreed to by both families, the real fun begins! I’m told the traditions differ a little between North and South China, but in the North, the husband’s family will cement the unification with a gift of around RMB100-thousand (US$16,000) to the bride’s family, along with jewellery and other auspicious gifts. Not so long ago, the bride would go to live with the husband’s family. Today, they generally reside together in their own home.
Oh and while you don’t see many Chinese women wearing diamond rings, I’m assured they do have them, most are just kept safely at home!
Together the families will consult a fortune teller to ensure the pairing is suitable and once they have the green light, the two families meet to find a ‘favourable’ date that will ensure a long, healthy and happy union. Often the Chinese Almanac (calendar) is consulted which lists all of the most prosperous days. Once the date has been set, there is no turning back.
Come the morning of the official event, there are lot of Chinese traditions going on at home — which I’m told even involves the bride hiding her shoes for the groom to find… (heaven help him if he can’t)!!
Shoes found and it’s time to party!
The legalities are all done at the offices of the Civil Affairs Bureau, sometimes a week or more before the celebrations, so you won’t see an exchanging of vows at the celebrations.
Once the groom has given his speech, you’ll usually see dad on the catwalk, daughter on arm, presenting her to her new husband. There is a lot of emotional chatter, the husband goes down on one knee and plenty of hugging. Usually the bride is in tears. (Hopefully tears of pure joy)!
The couple then walk down the catwalk with the bridal party, (who can be known to bust a few dance moves). The bride and groom say a few romantic words to each other and in this case, the bouquet was thrown — but only to the girls in the bridal party. Tip for all those single girls: time to work on getting a gig in the bridal party.
There’s no Best Man embarrassing the groom, this is strictly above board!
This is where the hotelier comes in. Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure we are not invited to the wedding for sentimental reasons. Mostly, the happy couple want the boss (the white boss, no less) to stand up and say a few words, in English. Never mind, that the majority of the wedding won’t understand, it’s all about the ‘value’ this strangely brings to the affair in question!
Here’s a little snippet of how this goes down. Lucky for the hotelier (or not) there is a translator on hand.
Once the formalities are done with, it’s time to tuck into the feast before us which involves about six courses, at least!! (Pig’s elbow being one of them at this week’s event, which I might add was pretty tasty!). While we’re feeding our faces, the bride has a quick change (often into her ‘Qipao’ – traditional Chinese dress) or something else glamorous, usually in red – symbolising luck and wealth. Together the couple must roam from table to table, toasting everyone in the room (often with shot glasses of Baijiu)!
Mid mouthful of noodles or not, it’s imperative everyone gets to their feet when the couple arrives at your table.
Meantime, a few guests have spied the small person and come over with red envelopes for her! (Who’s wedding is this?) Apparently giving children Hongbao or lucky money is supposed to bring joy and good luck for the twosome.
The bride and groom don’t actually seem to sit down…once the toasting has been done, it’s almost time to call it a day!….They wait outside for the guests, who then pose with them for photos and congratulate them in person.
And….that’s a wrap!
Typically, the newly weds will go on to have some sort of small gathering with friends.
Meantime, we smile, slip out the side door and head for a much needed coffee!
And that is how you say ‘I do’ in China.
#Disclaimer: You may have had different experiences with Chinese weddings, this is just my observation of weddings in Xi’an.