Traditional Chinese weddings are full of superstitious customs that are believed to usher in good fortune and happiness for the couple, as well as age-old rituals that emphasise family ties and respect for the elders. While more couples are taking cues from Western weddings in terms of awe-inspiring outfits and decorations, rituals like the tea ceremony and fetching of the bride remain strong to this day. Need to brush up on the basics? Here's your guide to the most important traditions surrounding a Chinese wedding...
Before the wedding
This gift-giving tradition has roots in ancient times, when betrothals were arrange with the help of a matchmaker. The ‘Guo Da Li’, a basket of gifts presented by the groom to the bride’s family, is meant to assure the bride that he will honour his vows. Items that are traditionally included in the basket are: peanut candies (Teochew families) or rice candies (Hokkien families), eight pieces of tangerines, betrothal jewellery, a whole roast pig, two pairs of pheonix and dragon candles and two bottles of brandy.
As a gesture of goodwill, the bride’s family will present the groom’s side with “return gifts” – everything in the basket except the betrothal jewellery, a pair of dragon candles and the bottles of brandy (these are replaced with bottles of honey) will be be given back in even numbers.
These days, it is more common to give only the betrothal jewellery (si dian jin): four different types of gold pieces – usually a pair of earrings, a ring, necklace and a bracelet – for the bride to keep. This is a gift from the mother-in-law to symbolise that the bride will always have a secure and comfortable life with her new husband.
Symbolising the bride and groom’s formal entrance into adulthood, the hair-combing ritual is usually practiced at their respective homes the night before the wedding. Before it takes place, they must bathe in water infused with pomelo leaves, a concoction believed to fend off evil spirits. Then, they change into a new set of pyjamas and bedroom slippers and take their seat in front of a pair of dragon and phoenix candles.
The ritual itself must be conducted by a lady who’s blessed with good fortune and has a surviving husband, as well as children and grandchildren. She will gently comb the hair of the bride and groom four times, reciting the following blessings in Mandarin with each stroke:
一梳梳到尾: May your marriage last for a lifetime
二梳百年好合: May you be blessed with a happy and harmonious marriage until old age
三梳子孙满堂: May you be blessed with an abundance of children and grandchildren
四梳白发齐眉: May you be blessed with longevity
To end the ritual, the couple will eat tang yuan (glutinous rice balls) to symbolise a sweet marriage that lasts through the ups and downs.
Wedding festivities begin early in the morning, when the groom sets off with his xiong di (brothers) to fetch the bride from her house. Before they’re allowed to enter the abode, they must first get past the bride’s jie mei (sisters or bridesmaids), who have plotted a series of challenging, often silly games and tests.
Out of the slyly creative tasks set out, a standard ritual is making the groom and groomsmen eat strange food combos (wasabi and bittergourd, anyone?) spanning four vital flavours – spicy, sour, bitter and sweet – that symbolise the many feelings encountered during a marriage. Finishing off all the concoctions presented is supposed to ensure a smooth, strong marriage. Other entertaining feats we’ve seen: writing a personalised love poem, answering a quiz all about the bride, dancing in outrageous headgear or outfits, and putting makeup on each other.
After conquering the tasks with the help of his sporting groomsmen, the groom must present the bridesmaids with ang paos (red packets) to thank them for their efforts. He can then enter the bride’s room to give her the bridal bouquet, lift her veil and plant a kiss. Finally united, they will set off to the groom’s house – entourage in tow – for the traditional tea ceremony.
The most significant part of a Chinese wedding, the tea ceremony is an intimate affair – usually reserved for relatives and the closest of friends – where the bride and groom meet and pay respects to each other’s families. They will greet each relative by their proper titles, and pour them tea in exchange for ang paos and blessings. The tea is normally brewed with red dates and longans, signifying the blessings of children early in the marriage and sweet relationships between the couple and their families. Following customs, the couple will visit the groom’s side first, and then return to the bride’s home after the bride changes into a kua (Chinese wedding dress).
Plenty of rules are in play here. For example, the couple’s parents must be served first, followed by all other older relatives in order of seniority. Younger siblings and cousins will also serve tea to the couple, who will thank them with ang paos or gifts.
The afternoon or night
The wedding banquet
Raucous merry-making awaits! Usually held at a hotel or ritzy Chinese restaurant, a Chinese wedding banquet consists of plenty of feasting and loud toasts to the couple known as “yam seng”.
Before the banquet begins, guests will slowly trickle in to sign the guestbook, drop off ang paos (the amount gifted usually depends on how expensive the venue is) and mingle. After the couple makes a grand entrance, an eight-to 10-course dinner – common dishes include whole roasted duck, steamed fish and egg noodles – will be served at a leisurely pace, with breaks in between for speeches, a video montage of the gatecrashing, live music and other means of entertainment.
While guests tuck into the food, the couple will slip away to change outfits before re-appearing for another march-in; this time, they’ll take to the stage for the ceremonial champagne-pouring. Their family and wedding entourage will then join them onstage for the long-awaited toasts – you’ll need to take a deep breath for this! As loved ones call out well-wishes for the couple, everyone raises their glasses and yells “yam seng” as loud and long as they possibly can.