Bright red wedding gowns, rooms decorated in gold, round tables piled with sumptuous food, and firecrackers exploding in the sky. As the Chinese New Year approaches, it’s also high time for wedding celebrations.
Though most young couples today prefer Western-style weddings to long and complicated Chinese rituals, it is still fun to have a glimpse of marriage traditions practiced in Shanghai’s rural suburbs, such as the betrothal gifts, the mother and daughter wailing before the girl leaves the family home, and three days of feasting.
Bowing to Heaven and Earth is seldom performed, though couples bow to their parents. And the erotica or marriage manual buried at the bottom of the bride’s trunk is, no doubt, no longer necessary.
In old times, boys and girls, young men and women had little contact before marriage and there was no dating.
When they reached the marriage age (as young as 16 years old), both sets of parents would entrust the “mate-searching” to a matchmaker, usually a middle-aged woman with a wide social network and “database” of village and town young people.
In 1950, China banned arranged marriage, but the practice did have benefits, according to Professor Tian Zhaoyuan, director of the Shanghai Folk Cultures Research Center at East China Normal University.
“In fact, the go-between played a very important role by finding a suitable match with equal social status. This contributed to stable, healthy marriages,” he says. “She also acted as a mentor to teach young people without experience how to behave and appreciate each other to have a smooth marriage.”
In the Yangtze River Delta region, after a matchmaker had identified a likely bride, the young man’s parents would send a card bearing the word “proposal” (qiu qin 求亲) to the girl’s parents.
If the matchmaker returned with the card, that would indicate the families reached a preliminary intent to marry.
The boy’s parents would send the matchmaker to get the girl’s full name, birthday and exact time of birth, including year, month, date and hour. Chinese believed in destiny as indicated by birth dates and times.
The girl’s and boy’s information would be placed together and analyzed by a fortune-teller to determine whether they would be a good match.
If the names matched, engagement was announced. Many proposed marriages failed because a fortune-teller predicted that, based on her birth information, a girl would bring misfortune to her future husband.
If the names were harmonious, the boy’s family would select an auspicious wedding date, often chosen by the fortune-teller.
The prospective bridegroom’s family would present betrothal gifts to the girl’s family, including money, clothes and jewelry. This usually took place 15-20 days before the wedding.
In the past daughters were irrelevant to their parents once they got married. An old saying goes that a married daughter is just like a bowl of water being thrown out.
To compensate parents for the loss of their daughter, betrothal money or bride price was paid to her parents. This no longer exists in urban Shanghai because it represents virtual “sale” of a daughter, but it is still practiced in some rural villages in Jinshan and Fengxian districts (usually 60,000-100,000 yuan (US$10,000-16,667).
To seal the engagement, the boy would send at least a silver ring carved the character “propose” to the girl.
She would return another silver ring carved with the character “accepted.” The engagement was complete.
The girl’s family would send dowry to the boy’s family, including bedding, tableware, camphorwood chests and other items. The larger the dowry, the greater respect the girl was accorded in the boy’s family.
In some rural villages in Shanghai as well as in Zhejiang Province, a red chamber pot was and still is essential, an emblem of offspring.
“In old China, women gave birth on the night stool,” says Professor Tian.
The new chamber pot is often stuffed with jujubes, peanuts, longans, chestnuts and eggs, all symbolizing children and expressing hopes that the couple would soon have children.
Umbrellas were forbidden in the dowry, because it has a similar sound with the word “separate” (san 散).
Chest bottom (ya xiang di 压箱底), a buzzword today, refers to savings or precious things because they are often preserved with great care in the bottom of a trunk or chest. The term stems from the mother’s practice of placing erotic pictures, a kind of sex manual, in the bottom of her daughter’s dowry chest.
In old times, the bride and bridegroom first met each other on their wedding day. On the morning the bride was picked up by the bridegroom; mother and daughter would wail loudly and sing because they would be separated, probably forever.
In the Nanhui villages of the Pudong New Area, the traditional wedding lament, which is almost not observed, is considered a form of intangible cultural heritage.
“This tradition is not only an emotional expression but also an art, a cultural behavior of gratitude,” Professor Tian says.
In the lament songs, the mother tells the daughter how to become a filial daughter-in-law and good wife in the new family.
“It’s quite an interesting contrast to today’s practice in which brides are often taught how to match wits with their mothers-in-law,” Tian says. “I like the old way better.”
The highlight is the wedding banquet.
“For us, a marriage, birth and funeral are vitally important because they represent decisive turning points in life,” says Zhang Xueqin, 65, a native Shanghainese from suburban Jiading District. “Of the three, the wedding is most important because it signifies the maturity of life.”
She describes some local wedding customs:
The traditional village wedding banquet must be held over three days. The first day is called tai mei jiu (抬媒酒), expressing gratitude to the matchmakers who brought the couples and families together and helped prepare the marriage. On that day, the matchmaker on the bride’s side sends the dowry to the bridal chamber.
The second day is the high point. In the morning, the bridegroom and his friends go to the bride’ home. He is usually blocked at the door by the bride’s friends or relatives and must perform various tasks such as push-up; these are supposed to be difficult, testing his determination to wed.
At this time, the bridegroom presents hongbao (红包), a red envelope stuffed with money, to the teases. The amount should end in lucky numbers 8 or 9. Eight (ba 八) rhymes with the word fa (fortune). Nine (jiu 九) rhymes with the word meaning long-lasting.
After the bridegroom finally succeeds in meeting the bride, they have lunch at the bride’s house. Liquor is a must, conveying thanks and best wishes. The bride’s aunts and grandmothers give hongbao to the bridegroom.
In the evening as firecrackers explode, the newlyweds go to the bridegroom’s house for a banquet and similar toasts and festivities.
Before the dinner, there used to be an important ritual — the couple bows three times, once to Heaven and Earth, once to their parents and once to each other.
“What a shame that many of today’s weddings skip the ritual,” Professor Tian says. “The tradition shouldn’t be forgotten because it means a lot. It shows respect to nature, gratitude to parents and is an oath to honor each other as they start a new life.”
After dinner comes the interesting part, nao dong fang (闹洞房), the spree in the bridal chamber. Guests crowd into the room to tease the newlyweds who are asked to kiss and embrace each other for the first time.
Since the wedding lasts for three days and there’s a lot of food, on the last day the relatives of the couple will be invited to lunch. The bride’s family prepares pastry and zongzi (粽子) or glutinous rice dumplings for the bridegroom’s friends and relatives.
Jiading native Zhang’s eldest daughter got married 20 years ago when 250 people attended the feast. Her youngest daughter married 10 years ago and invited 150 guests.
“As the time is changing, the wedding formalities will be simplified,” Zhang says. “But no matter how it changes, essential tradition remains.”