(article by Shu Shu Costa from the feature entitled: “Rituals of Bliss”; text & images courtesy of aOnline)
The ancient Chinese believed in destiny. At birth, so the legend goes, the gods tie a red string around the ankles of the man and woman who will one day be husband and wife. As the years pass, the string gets shorter and shorter until the two are united. How do you know that you’ve found your destiny? In China, the parents of the groom wrote the bride’s “eight characters”–her year, month, day and hour of birth–on a sheet of paper and placed it on the family altar. If after three days, nothing disastrous happened in the family, such as an illness or a broken vase or dish, the match was approved. The bride’s family followed the same ritual. If all went well, the festivities began.
In ancient times, 12 gifts were exchanged by the two families to seal the marriage contract. Some, such as the gift of chopsticks, were symbolic. The word for chopsticks, kuai zi, sounds like the word for “fast boy,” a wish for sons. The gift of a whole roast pig from the groom’s family to the bride’s family was also a popular engagement gift, one that is continued among many Chinese Americans today. In olden times, the bride’s family would send back the pig’s head and hind portion, thus showing that everything has a beginning and an end. To announce a marriage in China, the groom’s family would provide special cakes for the bride’s family to send to family and friends. Today, many Chinese American bakeries can make these cakes by special order.
The Wedding Outfits
Chinese wedding dresses are red, a color considered lucky since the Ming dynasty. Generally, brides from northern China wore a one-piece dress such as the qi pao; brides from the south wore a two-piece outfit, or hong qua. Both were elaborately adorned with golden phoenixes, the symbol for the bride, along with chrysanthemums and peonies, symbols of wealth and good fortune. On her head, the bride wore a phoenix crown, a headdress of kingfisher feathers and pearls, along with a red veil to shield her from the heavens until she reached her husband’s home. The bride would change many times during the wedding day, perhaps an indicator of the wealth of the bride’s family. And today, orchids are the flower of choice for the stylish bride. The groom’s costume is less elaborate. A black silk coat is worn over an embroidered dragon robe of dark blue. The headgear is a black hat with red tassels. Traditional costumes can be rented from dress stores in Chinatowns around the country. Prices begin around $600.
Firecrackers greeted the bride when she arrived at the wedding ceremony to scare off any evil spirits. The traditional “wedding vow” was this: The bride and groom knelt before a decorated altar laden with offerings such as roast pig, ducks and chickens, and adorned with red candles. Using delicate cups tied together with red string, the bride and groom sip wine as their formal vow. Crossing arms, they exchange cups and drink again. The sharing and mingling of wine means their marriage will be harmonious. As a final ritual (or in some places the first ritual), a cha tao or tea ceremony would be held. Starting from the oldest family member of the groom’s side, the bride serves a cup of sweet tea to each new relative. These days, many Chinese Americans duplicate this ritual in their wedding ceremonies.
For the Chinese, the wedding banquet is a way to show off the riches of the host. Dish after dish of succulent meats, seafoods, noodles and rice dishes emerge from the kitchen. Extravagant delicacies such as bird’s nest soup, shark’s fin soup and abalone attest to the host’s generosity. Foods are also served for their symbolism. Whole fish is almost always served: The word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for “abundance.” Noodles, their length signifying long life, are also often served. Desserts that contain lotus seeds are served as a wish for the couple to have many children.
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Other Asian Wedding Cultures:
- Exploring a few Ethnic Wedding Traditions, The Gainesville Sun (January 20, 2001)
- Adding Asian Elements and Traditions to Your Wedding, IMdiversity.com (April/May 2001)
- Married to Tradition, San Antonio Express-News (June 23, 2001)