Looking for Tradition in a Modern Chinese Wedding
Sitting shyly on her bed, surrounded by raucous wedding guests, the bride watched as her groom — a coworker of mine — knelt and prepared to kiss her feet. She offered up a few half-joking words of comfort. “Don’t worry,” she reassured him. “I washed them.”
It’s just one amusing moment in a day full of them. In this particular portion of the traditional Chinese wedding, the groom must fetch his bride from her natal family and bring her to the wedding venue. The bridal party typically prepares challenges the groom must overcome before they’ll let him take her away, such as hiding her shoes and forcing him to find them and put them on. In this case, the wedding party egged him into planting a kiss on his bride’s feet as he did so.
If you wanted to locate the source of these games in the Chinese canon, it would probably be the practice of qinying mentioned in the Confucian classic “The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial.” Literally translated, it means “to welcome in person.” A symbolic rite of passage, qinying — now more often rendered as yingqin — signifies the participants’ changing social status as the bride leaves her natal family and joins the groom’s family.
Alongside the rising popularity of hanfu, or traditional Chinese clothing, young Chinese are increasingly eschewing the Western-style weddings popular in recent decades for more classically inspired affairs. Like all weddings, however, these are a balancing act, as couples navigate a complex mix of formal rituals, often raunchy folk practices, and modern sensibilities.
My colleague and his fiancée thought long and hard before deciding to hold a Chinese traditional wedding in his hometown. What decided the matter was their interest in traditional Chinese culture. In particular, they drew inspiration from the classic “Book of Rites,” which says “Weddings are for joining the good of the two surnames. Looking toward the past, they provide for service to the ancestral temple; looking toward the future, they provide for the continuation of descendants.”
Thus, my colleague, who works in the central city of Changsha, and his bride made a point of visiting and leaving offerings at his ancestral tablets as soon as they arrived in his hometown. Ancestor worship used to be the center of the Chinese kinship organization and virtually all family rituals, and even today many Chinese still make pilgrimages to the countryside to leave offerings at their ancestors’ tombs or shrines. It’s a practice that binds Chinese families to their place of birth, no matter how far they travel in the world.
After this offering, but before the main wedding ceremony, the couple made a brief visit to the bedroom they will share. There, the bed was made by a carefully selected elderly woman. To be eligible for the task she must have a happy and prosperous family with children of both genders. Dried nuts and fruits are laid out on the bed: dates, longan, and lotus seeds — all traditional symbols of fertility.
Back in the main hall, the bride wore a traditional gown with a red veil, which the groom lifted with a stick. They then drank liquor from a pair of vessels made from a same gourd, another tradition that symbolizes their unity as a couple, before paying courtesy bows to heaven and earth, their parents, and each other. These rituals, all derived from Chinese historical practice, differentiated their wedding from more modern, Western-inspired affairs in which the couple exchanges rings and vows.
Nevertheless, some allowances for modern sensibilities were made. In addition to relatives and neighbors, the couple brought their own party. Consisting of their close friends, they played the role of groomsmen and bridesmaids, receiving guests and helping plan the ceremony.
The deep involvement of a couple’s own friends in the wedding planning process, especially the involvement of those not personally acquainted with the couple’s family, is a rather recent development, as weddings had traditionally been family or clan affairs. Other traditional practices do not give way so easily. Prior to the wedding, the groom had a prolonged discussion with his family, relatives, and neighbors, all of whom insisted that local customs — and not just classic rites — should be included in the ceremony. In this case, the most contentious custom involved the groom’s father, dressed in heavy makeup, pulling the bridal carriage around while the wedding’s master of ceremonies would make dirty jokes.
The groom hoped to cut this event altogether, but after multiple rounds of drinking, a relative laid down an ultimatum: “It’s up to you, but your parents will feel embarrassed for a long while if this is absent from your wedding.”
In the end, a compromise was struck. The groom’s father put on the makeup and took part in the ceremony, but the dirty jokes were kept to a minimum. While much has been made of the growing individualism of younger generations, when it comes to weddings, the couple’s autonomy is far from absolute, and they often find themselves forced to accede to the influence of their family or other local connections.
Then again, is there really such a thing as a fully self-directed wedding? As a scholar specializing in the study of classical Chinese ritual, it’s hard not to notice that most traditional-seeming weddings generally integrate modern components, and even the most classically inclined couples can’t excise all folk practices from their ceremonies. Given the diverse, multifaceted nature of modern love, I couldn’t help wondering, where, in all of this cacophony, does the magic reside?
A friend of the couple who helped direct the ceremony offered a clue. “I was most touched by the groom’s careful protection of his bride from the more disturbing local customs, her gentle wiping of his sweat, and their support of each other through each step. It was all in the love that they gave to each other and to the ceremony — and in our being there to witness these details.”
Her words made me think of the classic Chinese myth of the cowherd and weaving girl. The most beautiful love story in Chinese mythology, it is the story of a couple, separated by the Milky Way. Every year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, they enjoy a brief reunion thanks to a bridge formed by magpies. Although many Chinese tend to think that love and marriage are not the same thing, the ideal marriage has always been a union of love.
That story has since become the basis of qixi, or “Chinese Valentine’s Day,” celebrated this year on Aug. 4. While the ritual of a wedding might be good for signifying one’s changed social status, it is ultimately not about symbols, money, or who is present. It is a vehicle of emotion and feelings shared by people who love each other. I don’t know what makes a good or authentic wedding, but as long as you find your magpie bridge, it may not matter.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A wedding in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, Dec. 31, 2018. VCG)