Peak wedding season in China falls during the weeklong National Day holiday at the beginning of October: As the wind blows away some of the smog, there’s time for a tinge of romance to seep into the crisp autumnal air. In the days after the break, social media feeds are flooded with videos of couples tying the knot.
Chinese weddings can be rather raucous affairs. One viral video, posted on Oct. 6, shows a groom in Guangzhou, the capital of southern China’s Guangdong province, tied to a lamppost with a long string of firecrackers taped to his backside. The video then cuts to a string of explosions winding their way up toward his body, followed by a shot of the predictably bloody aftermath.
Another clip, this one from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, shows a groomsman being tossed up and down by his fellow revelers, whose head then accidentally bangs against the pavement, knocking him unconscious. Fortunately, his injuries were not life-threatening.
The videos triggered a broader social debate about the traditional Chinese custom of naohun, or wedding hazing. The practice refers to practical jokes played by members of the wedding party, with the aim of injecting a tone of revelry into the proceedings. In today’s China, the extreme activities depicted in the above videos are a common enough phenomenon.
This June, two men at a wedding in Xi’an, in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, pinned a bridesmaid down in the wedding car and groped her breasts, ignoring her pleas for them to stop. They were later detained by local police on suspicion of indecent assault. In March, at the celebrity wedding of actor Bao Bei’er, the actress and TV personality Liu Yan nearly found herself tossed into a swimming pool in full formal finery, despite screaming her protestations. In another case, members of a wedding party dressed the groom’s father and mother up like clowns, completing the look by putting sticks through the father’s hat.
But Chinese wedding hazing rituals were not always so vulgar, violent, or humiliating. Hazing has been an important part of matrimonial customs for at least a thousand years, but it previously only referred to the tradition of teasing newlyweds in their bridal chambers on their wedding night. In premodern China, people believed such hazing expelled evil spirits and helped the newlyweds avoid misfortune.
More crucially, hazing played a vital role in breaking the ice between newly wedded couples. In traditional Confucian culture, strict rules governed all contact between men and women, even forbidding accidental touching when passing objects to one another. Marriages, meanwhile, were arranged according to the wishes of one’s parents, likely with input from a community matchmaker.
As a result, it was rare for couples to meet before the wedding itself, much less have any say in their choice of partner. Young brides and grooms often had no idea what their spouse even looked like until their wedding day, when they abruptly found themselves getting hitched with a total stranger. In such cases, hazing was a way for relatives and friends to encourage the couple to feel comfortable being intimate.
The practice was lent additional importance by young people, who were historically taught almost nothing about sex and consequently had to rely on hints and innuendoes dropped during the hazing process in order to get a better idea of what they would someday experience themselves.
Today, even as young couples in many of China’s more developed cities have adopted traditions from Western weddings, hazing remains part of the festivities. In urban areas, however, it usually takes the form of lighthearted games to test the couple’s compatibility, such as requiring the bride and groom to answer questions about how they met, or making them both take bites from an apple hanging on a string until their lips meet.
However, hazing is undergoing a change on another level as well. More and more Chinese couples are learning about sex earlier in life, and so are relying less on hazing in order to educate themselves about the proverbial birds and bees.
In addition, hazing is no longer confined to the bridal chamber. Today, it often involves bridesmaids and groomsmen, a tacked-on Western concept with no grounding in traditional Chinese wedding culture. Wedding guests generally don’t want to involve the bride in anything too salacious, so her bridesmaids, who are typically single, become the primary targets of the wedding party’s sexualized “banter.”
Increasingly, hazing rituals have become nothing more than excuses for obscenity, with victims being forced to reveal intimate body parts, dress up in silly-looking outfits, or mime sexual acts in public. As the above examples show, some men are clearly taking advantage of hazing customs to subject women to sexual assault.
Why has hazing gone from being an innocent-enough folk custom to a casual display of vulgarity? On one level, younger Chinese have embraced an almost hedonistic pursuit of pleasure in recent years. Among certain hazers, traditionally solemn events such as weddings are viewed as nothing more than opportunities for revelry. These individuals then use hazing as fuel for their own perverse japes, knowing their targets will feel unable to refuse, as taking offense at a wedding would disrupt the spirit of what is supposed to be a joyous day.
On another level, hazing has always been an outlet for repressed sexuality. Today, frank discussions about sex are largely off-limits in China. In the words of the Chinese psychologist Hu Shenzhi, “Sexual repression can find an outlet in sexualized play, and the majority of traditional bridal hazing games were sexually inclined.” Wedding hazing was the only outlet where repressed sexual desires could be openly expressed — or at least hinted at — without fear of repercussions.
Chinese society still has a complicated and often contradictory relationship with sex. In public, people tend to bury sexual desire, and many are too embarrassed to talk openly about sexuality. In private, however, sex has become much more normalized, especially among the younger generation.
When we repress our sexuality, we have less control over it. However, the more we understand our urges, the easier it is to release them in a controlled manner. The reports of inappropriate behavior during bridal hazing activities show that Chinese society is suffering from an excess of the former and a lack of the latter.
The problem is exacerbated in a society in which women occupy much lower social positions than men. China ranked 99th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, far below the world’s developed countries. Additionally, bridal hazing is significantly more widespread in China’s less well-off regions. It should not surprise us that areas suffering from low education standards and a lack of knowledge about women’s rights are far more likely to tolerate the kind of hazing rituals that see women simply as objects of sexual desire or targets of humiliation.
The Chinese word for wedding, hunli, is comprised of two characters. The second of these, li, refers to the Confucian tenet of ritually performing behaviors appropriate to one’s social role. To many Chinese, relations between men and women are built upon a foundation of respect, honesty, and shared values about the “proper” social roles of the two sexes.
It is obvious that today’s wedding hazing practices run counter to the principles of li. We cannot endorse the disgusting forms of behavior that seek to humiliate wedding guests, and we must be especially tough on those who sexually assault women. Yet we also need a cultural shift in how we educate people about expressing sexuality. Perhaps then the minority of men who condone this behavior will understand that weddings are supposed to be outpourings of joy, not excuses to act out their own pent-up urges.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A newlywed couple walks down a street in Mizhi County, Yulin, Shaanxi province, May 22, 2017. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone)