China has one of the world’s oldest and deepest cultures—and it takes marriage very seriously. Even today, many of the ancient customs are still practiced and remain intact. Unlike many western cultures, eastern traditions are still rooted deeply in the fabric of society and present in everyday life. Yet, there seems to be a slight shift as Chinese and western wedding traditions are slowly being fused together.
Just like many Chinese customs, marriage is filled with symbolism and tradition. In ancient times, marriages were strictly arranged by a matchmaker. The boy’s parents would find a girl they thought would be a good candidate for their son, and send a matchmaker to the girl’s home to seek a proposal. Following an agreement that they might be a good fit, both parents would consult a fortune teller. Names, birth dates, birth years, birth places, and zodiacs would be analyzed to determine if the couple’s “ming” (fate) was compatible. If everything checked out, and the two families shared similar wealth and social status—a marriage deal would be brokered, betrothal gifts would be offered, and a wedding would be planned. These days, marriage is based on finding your true love and soul mate—but back then, the art of matchmaking was the only way to choose an ideal partner; which was vital for both the couple and the family. To the boy, marriage determines the prosperity and even the future honor of his family; while for the girl, a good marriage means that the parents were able to give honor to their daughter through a prosperous match.
Three notable texts The Book of Rites, The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial, and the Baihu Tong outline the covenants and six etiquettes that are considered necessary elements of Chinese marriage—each one being an important part in the process. The six etiquettes include: the proposal, visit the fortune teller for birthday matching—this is done to make sure the couple’s birthday’s do not conflict according to astrology—prepare and send wedding gifts, choosing a ceremony date, and the big day.
Symbols are a very important part of Chinese society in general, and weddings in particular. There are many motifs that will appear in a Chinese wedding; and foremost among them is the Double Happiness calligraphy symbol "囍". Double Happiness is used all throughout the wedding from the invitations, to the decorations, to the wedding cake, and even the lanterns. The symbol is believed to bring good luck in a marriage, and instrumental in fulfilling your dreams.
The dragon and the phoenix are a very significant pair of symbols, and the two most powerful of the four celestial animals. The dragon and phoenix are said to be the perfect couple in Feng Shui, and represent the ultimate symbol of marital happiness. The dragon represents the groom and the phoenix represents the bride; and these motifs will frequently be embroidered on the wedding attire of the couple. A pair of cranes is another favorable omen, as it represents longevity.
The wedding ceremony is always the main focus of interest. The ceremony portion typically includes the ring exchange, a tea ceremony, the bride's dress change into a red outfit, and the couple bowing down to show respect to their families and God. Themes of good fortune and luck are sprinkled throughout the events—including wedding gifts with money inside of good luck (red) envelopes to ensure the couple’s future prosperity and happiness.
While the wedding is a grand affair, it’s certainly not complete without the tea ceremony. This ritual is an ancient custom meant to demonstrate respect and honor for the family. The original way in which the tea ceremony was conducted, would be for the bride to privately serve her own family before the wedding ceremony, and for the newlyweds to serve the groom’s family together following their vows. Many Chinese-American couples adapt this custom and have one tea ceremony with both families present. It usually comes right after the end of the marriage ceremony, but some couples will wait until later in the day or even the following morning.
The color red plays a vital role in a wedding, as it depicts all the positive qualities of the union. You’ll find red lanterns, red table cloths, red flowers, and of course the bride’s dress. The color symbolizes love, prosperity, fertility, luck, and happiness; therefore, everything at the wedding has a red element. Gold is also a complimentary color that is used alongside of it. Traditionally, the color gold could only be used by emperors as a meaning of status—but then, it became used more liberally as a sign of honor and wealth.
An important part of an American wedding is bidding the newlyweds farewell after the festivities. This is often celebrated by decorating their car with ribbons, streamers, and cheering as they drive away. The party may even continue after they leave. However, in China, the bride, groom and their families form a guard of honor by the door as the guests leave, about 20 minutes after the final dish has been served.
Most Chinese-American ceremonies these days are a blend of Eastern and Western traditions. Today, a wedding ceremony may find the bride adorned in a customary red dress serving tea to her husband’s family at one moment, and dancing to a contemporary DJ in a white gown at a later time. The traditions and rituals of Chinese weddings are actually quite easy to integrate with American customs; and most brides and grooms are able to seamlessly blend the two cultures into one cohesive event.
The elegance and tradition of a Chinese wedding make them very powerful events. In a desire to honor their heritage and begin their married life with good luck, many modern Chinese-American couples decide to make these ancient customs part of their contemporary ones. The etiquette and themes of Chinese weddings are so intriguing that they are also finding their way to many non-Chinese ceremonies as well—which a true testament to the beauty and influence of the culture as a whole. To the Chinese, marriage is the most memorable and precious moment in one’s life—a very sacred ritual that symbolizes love, happiness, prosperity, and tradition.