The Protocol of the Chinese Wedding—From the Red Hóngbāo Envelopes to the Tradition of the Bride Changing into Three Different Wedding Gowns During the Wedding Banquet

-Today, most Chinese couples—especially those living in urban areas—meet each other and decide when to get engaged on their own, without the assistance of traditional matchmakers. Generally, the man presents the lady with a diamond ring. But while modern engagements may differ from traditional ones, some traditional elements still remain: the offering of betrothal gifts; the bridal dowry; and consultation with a fortune teller, for example.

-Traditionally, the engagement consisted of six courtesies: the marriage proposal; the asking for names (and other vital information); praying for good fortune; the sending of betrothal gifts; the sending of invitation; and the welcoming of the bride.

1) The marriage proposal: a family would hire a matchmaker, who would approach another family to seek a proposal.

2 and 3) Both families would then consult a fortuneteller, who would analyze: the man’s and woman’s birth years, dates, and times; names; and other vital information. If the fortuneteller deemed the man and woman compatible, traditionalists would confirm compatibility with three matchmakers and six “proofs,” namely an abacus, a measuring vessel, a ruler, a pair of scissors, a set of scales, and a mirror. If compatibility was confirmed, a marriage deal would be brokered.

4) Betrothal gifts would then be offered by the man’s family to the woman. Gifts typically included food and cakes. Once accepted by the woman’s family, the wedding planning would begin.

5) The Chinese calendar would then be consulted in order to select an auspicious date for the wedding. Thereafter, invitations would be sent, either by mail or by hand-delivery. Chinese wedding invitations are almost always of red paper with gold text and enclosed in red envelopes that are longer and wider than “hóngbāo” envelopes (the red envelopes used for cash-gifts at weddings). The invitations feature the names of the bride and groom and details pertaining to the wedding and banquet. In China, guests are invited to the reception, not to the wedding ceremony, where vows are exchanged. So a Chinese wedding invitation is, in effect, an invitation to a lavish banquet to celebrate the marriage. Invitations are sent out anywhere from several days to several weeks in advance.

6) The bridal dowry is comprised of gifts that the bride will take to her husband’s home, symbolizing that the bride has left her family and is now a part of her husband’s family. (In the past, the value of the dowry determined the status of the wife in her new home).

-The Chinese wedding ritual begins with the groom going to the bride’s home to fetch her. If the bride is young, she is likely to have several female friends at her home who will tease the groom and encourage him to hand over gifts to them before they hand over the bride to him. And grooms come prepared for the “barter” with red envelopes (“hóngbāo”) stuffed with cash for the girlfriends. Before leaving the bride’s home, the bride and groom bow to the bride’s parents then depart for the groom’s home. Traditionally, the bride was taken to the groom’s home in a sedan chair carried by the groom’s male relatives and friends, trumpets sounding to announce her arrival. But today, most brides are transported by car.

-Upon arriving at the groom’s home, the bride and groom bow to Heaven and to Earth in front of the groom’s family altar in the home or at a local temple. Thereafter, the bride and groom bow before the groom’s parents, then to each other.

-At the groom’s home, the bride and groom offer tea to their elders. On the occasion of a wedding, protocol of “eldest first” is adjusted, requiring that parents be served before grandparents.

-Most Chinese couples are married in understated ceremonies at their local city hall. Religious Chinese may opt to exchange their vows at a religious ceremony, which has legal effect. But whether by religious or civil ceremony, there are no invited guests.

-The traditional Chinese wedding gown is the “quipao” (or “cheongsam”), a one-piece dress with origins dating back to the 1600s when the Manchu ruled China. Originally a loose-fitting, wide-cut garment of embroidered silk that revealed only a lady’s head, hands, and toes, in the 1920s the dress became form-fitting and more revealing (with one or two side-slits) to suit the tastes of the upper classes and celebrities. The traditional bright colors and embroidery of the original quipaos, however, remained.

Today, most Chinese brides wear three wedding dresses during the course of the wedding: a quipao, a Western-style white wedding gown, and a ball gown. A wedding banquet is traditionally comprised of nine courses, and the bride changes at the end of the third and sixth courses.

-The groom typically wears a tuxedo or a Western-style business suit. Like the bride, the groom also changes his garments during the course of the reception. Some traditional grooms wear a Zhongshan suit (also called a Mao suit), the Chinese version of the Western business suit. (Traditionally, Mao suits come in gray, navy, or olive).

-Guests traditionally wear bright colors, especially red, which symbolizes luck and wealth. As in Western culture, wearing white is discouraged as it detracts from the bride; and black is still regarded as a somber color in China and is therefore not typically worn at weddings. Male guests wear Mao suits or Western-style business suits.

-Traditionally, the Chinese wedding reception is financed by the groom’s family.

-The traditional Chinese wedding present is cash, presented in a hóngbāo, a long, narrow red envelope decorated with golden Chinese characters for “wealth” and “happiness,” for example. In Chinese culture, red represents luck, and gold represents wealth. (“Red envelopes” are also given to the younger generation by the older generation—grandparents, parents, relatives, close neighbors and friends, for example—on New Year’s Day and on birthdays. Employers also use “red envelopes” to give year-end bonuses to employees. When given at the Chinese New Year, red envelopes are typically unsigned. When given for birthdays and weddings, however, they may be inscribed with short messages and signed. Red envelopes are to be given and received with both hands. A recipient of a New Year or birthday red envelope should never open it in the presence of the donor. In the case of wedding red envelopes, however, the protocol is different. See below).

-Upon arriving at the reception, an invited guest hands over his red envelope to the wedding attendant, then signs his name in the registry (usually a large scroll). The attendant will then immediately open the red envelope, count its contents, then record the amount next to the guest’s name on the scroll. (Besides for bookkeeping purposes, the recording of the amount given allows the couple to reciprocate with a gift of greater value on some subsequent occasion).

-The amount of money to be given in a red envelope at a wedding depends on several factors, including the relationship between the couple and the grantor. But in no case should the amount be less than value of the meal to be consumed by the guest at the reception. Certain amounts of money are to be avoided: amounts containing the number four should be avoided since that number is associated with death in Chinese culture. Otherwise, even numbers are preferred to odd numbers. The number eight is regarded as particularly auspicious.  And the bills–which must be new–are never to be folded before being placed into the red envelope. Coins should be avoided on account of their relative insignificant value, and checks should be avoided as they are not generally used in Chinese culture.

-After presenting the red envelope and signing the registry, the guest is ushered into the banquet hall, where there will be assigned seating or open seating.

-The arrival of the bride and groom signals the beginning of the reception.

-After the couple—typically the groom—gives a welcoming speech, guests are served the first of nine courses.

-While the guests are eating and being served, the bride and groom are busy attending to the needs of their guests and changing into their various outfits (See above).

-Just before the dessert course, the bride and groom toast their guests. The groom’s best friend may also propose a toast. The bride and groom then visit each table, where the guests stand and toast the newlyweds. After visiting each table, the bride and groom exit the banquet hall as dessert is being served and eaten.

-Once the dessert course is concluded, the wedding reception ends. The bride and groom and close family members form a receiving line to bid farewell to their guests. Guests take photos with the newlyweds and receive a wedding favor, usually sweets, from the bride.

-After the wedding banquet, close family and friends visit the newlyweds’ room to extend good wishes to them. The couple then shares a glass of wine with those in attendance, then cuts off a lock of hair as a symbol of their union.

-On the third, seventh, or ninth day after the wedding, the bride returns to her family home to visit her family.


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