In ancient China, a marriage ceremony is a solemn and sacred occasion.
Michelle Neo, the co-owner of Chinese Wedding Shop, happily shares her knowledge with anyone who steps into her retail stores.
“We will try to explain to them all the customs, all the cultures and everything they wish to know even before they buy anything. This is our policy,” she says.
Apart from doing business, a noble aspiration rests on the owners’ shoulders—to spread the customs and traditions of Chinese weddings to future generations, so as to keep them alive.
“It is important to keep these traditions alive because it goes back to our roots,” affirms Michelle.
Also, following the traditional customs makes the entire wedding more symbolic and meaningful. The ‘tea serving ceremony 敬茶’ is one important example.
“The tea serving ceremony signifies filial piety (Chinese: 孝, xiào), a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. The couple also do this in the hope that in the future, their children will also fulfil their filial obligation towards them,” Michelle explains.
“Most of the youngsters would still agree to carry out the customs because they want a blissful marriage,” Michelle says.
Presenting the Wedding Gifts
‘Presenting the Wedding Gifts’, or ‘Guo Da Li 過大禮’, is the most significant custom in a Chinese wedding. It represents the engagement and promises the groom gives to the bride’s family, and the acceptance of the bride and groom into both families.
Michelle says the wedding is only officially confirmed after ‘Presenting the Wedding Gifts’, even though the wedding banquet has been booked.
There is an array of elaborate gifts from dowry money, oranges, alcohols, cakes that the groom’s family will bring over to the bride’s family.
A portion of the dowry money will also be used by the bride’s parents to prepare dowry for their daughter. In addition, the bride’s family has to return half of the gifts to the groom’s family a few days later in the ‘Return the Gifts 回禮’ ceremony, to show their appreciation to the groom’s family.
In olden days, brides will also hand-sew shoes or clothing for the groom as gifts.
In modern days, the exchange and returning of gifts are all done within a day, usually two weeks or a month before the wedding day, when the families are distributing wedding invitation cards and cakes to their relatives.
“Even if one side is non-Chinese, they will still follow the customs. That is how rooted our traditions and customs are,” Michelle avows.
The Chinese Wedding Gifts – Food Items
Michelle elucidates the dowry items in detail, right down to the bamboo baskets that contain these gifts.
Interestingly, different food items presented in the wedding gifts vary in accordance to the different dialect groups.
|Hokkien||1. The Hokkien Mi Lao Ma Lao Biscuits 福建米老麻老饼
2. Hokkien Prosperity Biscuits – Fujian Bashe Bing (containing 8 different types of biscuits)
3. Cans of Pork Legs in box
|Teochew||1. Teochew Peanuts & Sesame Candy 潮州芝麻花生糖, which represent a good and sweet beginning and ending (甜頭甜尾).
2. Teochew Prosperity Biscuits Liuse bing (6 types of biscuits)
3. Cans of Pork Legs in box
|Cantonese/ Hakka||1. Cantonese / Hakka Prosperity Biscuits 广东/ 客家6 色饼
|Hainanese||1. Hainanese Gin Dei 海南金叠
These biscuits are distributed to the relatives.
All these auspicious food items are presented using the bamboo baskets.
“The more tiers there are, the richer they are. For example, if they use a 3-tier basket for the gifts, it signifies they will be living in a 3-storey flat in the future,” shares Michelle.
She points out that in Teochew custom, they use a straw betrothal basket with painted pomegranate. Pomegranate was considered an emblem of fertility in the olden days.
As for other dialect groups, they will place the dowry items in a ‘black and red’ betrothal basket.
Hokkien and Teochew families also give cans of pork legs in a box. As for the Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese, the groom will deliver a roast pig to the bride’s family on the wedding day itself.
“The cans of pork legs represent the wealth 富貴 of the groom’s family, as in the ancient times, only the rich could afford to eat meat,” says Michelle. “The roast pig represents the virginity of the bride. Nowadays, the roast pig just signifies that the groom’s family is pleased with the bride.”
“Last time, the bride will return the roast pig when she visits her family with her husband during ‘Returning Home (三朝回门)’. But nowadays, it all happens on the wedding day itself,” she adds.
The Different Dowry Items and Their Meanings
Each of the dowry items has their auspicious meaning, symbolising well-wishes for the bride and groom. They are basically necessities, such as traditional household items, for the couple to start a new family.
Due to lifestyle changes, many of the dowry items like dressing table and sewing machine have become obsolete. Instead, many items have been replaced by miniature replica.
“The sewing machine has been replaced by a sewing box set in modern days,” says Michelle. “Nowadays, we replace the big-sized wooden clog with miniature clogs, which are placed on the bed to symbolise ‘rising steadily for future successes’ 步步高升.”
The dowry items also include a tea set and a bowl set.
The tea set is to be used at the groom’s house for the wedding tea ceremony. The bowl set is purchased by the bride’s family for the groom’s family to serve ‘tang yuan’ (glutinous rice dumplings in sweet soup), signifying a ‘happy and complete marriage圓圓滿滿’ for the couple.
The most significant dowry item in a Chinese wedding is the baby prosperity set 子孙桶, which include a baby bath tub, potty, face washbasin, mug, ruler, and five element seeds.
“The seeds represent that the couple will be blessed with abundance (五谷丰收) and many children 早生貴子. All these seeds are placed in a potty. The ruler signifies ‘measuring the land 量田量地’, that the couple will be blessed with many assets.”
Other dowry items include:
|Umbrella||Hokkien, Cantonese, Hainanese and Hakka people will use an umbrella on the wedding day to shelter the bride. It symbolises a good shelter for the rest of her life.|
|Fan||For Teochews, when the car is moving off from the bride’s house, the bride will toss away a fan. It signifies throwing away her bad habits.
The bride will bring another fan and handkerchief to the groom’s house. It signifies having bountiful offsprings 開枝散葉.
|Charcoal||It symbolises earning big money and that the groom has money to take care of the bride in the future.|
|2 pairs of chopsticks||It represents a union of two persons成雙成對.|
|Wedding lamps||They are placed on the left-hand side of the bed to symbolise carrying on the bloodline, and guiding them with a bright future.|
|2 bottles of orange juice||It signifies ‘good luck 大吉大利’ and ‘happy forever 甜甜蜜蜜’.|
|Towels||The towels are given to the couple to wish them ‘living to an old age in marital bliss 白頭偕老’.|
|Double Happiness ‘囍’ stickers||The stickers are pasted around the couple’s new home to represent love, happiness, and luck.|
|Jewellery||In Teochew custom, ‘Four points of gold’ (Si Dian Jin 四点金) are presented by the groom’s parents to the bride. It typically comprise a pair of earrings, a necklace, bangle or bracelet, and pendant or ring.
In Cantonese and Hakka custom, the bride is given a pair of Dragon-Phoenix Bangles.
The Hokkiens will give a pair of gold bangles.
What happens to these dowry items after the wedding?
Michelle advises the couple to keep the dowry items till their children have grown up.
For instance, she says, the tea set used at the tea ceremony at the bride’s house is actually handed down by the bride’s mother from her own wedding.
“You will be surprised that a lot of mothers still keep their tea sets!” she enthuses.
The customs in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia
To our bewilderment, according to Michelle, the mainland Chinese do not have much knowledge about these Chinese wedding customs, “as these traditions have been destroyed after the Cultural Revolution”.
“If you ask those living in Mainland China, most probably, they won’t know about the customs either,” explains Michelle, who learned about this through her suppliers from China.
Sadly, “[in] today’s China, the betrothal gifts and dowry are cash and car. And they will distribute sweets, cigarettes and matches,” she reveals.
As a matter of fact, overseas Chinese, such as those from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia, are more traditional and retain these wedding customs better than the Mainland Chinese.
For instance, she says, “In Singapore, we will rent the Chinese traditional wedding dress – Kua 群褂 , which costs around a few thousand dollars, whereas in Hong Kong, they will have to buy the elaborate kua and keep it.”
The Three Letters and Six Etiquettes in a Traditional Chinese Wedding
In ancient China, a marriage ceremony is a solemn and sacred occasion.
Hence, there is a custom of Three Letters and Six Etiquettes (三书六礼). It refers to the six steps that people follow in traditional Chinese wedding.
But the steps have now been reduced to four, namely, Presenting the Wedding Gifts (过大礼), Bed Setting (安床), Hair Combing (上头) and The Wedding Ceremony (结婚正日) in the modern days.
Traditionally, the Three Letters consist of Betrothal Letter (聘书), Gift Letter (礼书), and Wedding Letter (迎亲书) while the Six Etiquettes are Proposal (纳采), Birthday Conciliation (问名), Betrothal Gifts (纳吉), Wedding Gifts (纳征), Choosing the Date (请期) and the Ceremony (迎亲).
The Steps and Significance of Bed Setting and Hair Combing
Bed Setting (安床)
In the past, an auspicious time and date is chosen for bed setting and it is usually held between three days to one week before the wedding. In modern times, the Chinese are more lax in following the auspicious timing due to their hectic schedules.
Traditionally, the bed setting ritual is carried out by the matchmaker or an auspicious person (好命人) the night before the wedding day.
Now, the ritual is usually carried out by the groom’s parents.
In the past, the groom’s family will buy the bed while the bride’s family purchases the bedsheet, pillows, and bolster. Nowadays, free pillow and bolster sets are provided when buying the bed. Hence, the bride’s family only needs to prepare a new quilt cover set.
To do the ritual, the bedsheet has to be changed first and a tray is placed in the middle of the bed. On the tray, there will be an even number of oranges, one packet of sweet candy, red dates, lily bulbs, lotus seeds, walnut peanut, dried melon slice, pine tree lead, dried tangerine, dried longan from the gift box, and a red packet containing $8 to symbolise prosperity.
The packet of sweet candy is given to the kids who help to roll on the bed (压床), signifying blessing the couple with fertility.
12 packets of ‘destiny coins’ that symbolise a better relationship between the families and their kids in the future are placed at the four corners of the bed and four corners of the wardrobes.
Two packets of ‘destiny coins’ are placed in the two pillowcases and another two packets are placed in the drawers.
Hair Combing (上头)
The hair combing ceremony signified that the bride and groom have grown up and are now adults.
In the past, the ceremony was more complicated with rice bucket, candles and scissors required. Nowadays, the steps have been simplified.
Hair combing is now carried out the night before the wedding at the respective homes of the bride and groom. Ruler, mirror and comb are required.
An auspicious person will comb the bride’s and groom’s hair and read out these lucky phrases with each stroke of the comb:
May your marriage last for a lifetime （一梳梳到尾）
May you be blessed with a happy and harmonious marriage until old age （二梳百年好合）
May you be blessed with an abundance of children and grandchildren （三梳子孙满堂）May you be blessed with longevity （四梳白发齐眉）
This ceremony is carried out by all dialect groups with the Teochew and Cantonese placing more emphasis on it as they are more elaborated when performing the ritual. They feel that the ritual is important.
For some of the Teochews who have had the ceremony during their coming-of-age ceremony (成年礼), they are not required to do it again.
For those who do not go through this ritual, it is believed that the bride and groom should still buy the items required and have them displayed at her dressing table for a successful marriage. The items should not be given away or passed to others except her daughter, but it can be stored away after a week.