Marriage has always been the most affecting story in human life. Each marriage is special and celebrates the marriage bond of the newlyweds. The wide variety of marriage customs represents the different living environments and cultural traditions. Though there are many different customs and rituals of marriage, what remained constant were the chief objectives: joining and enhancing the two families and ensuring succession with numerous descendants. Reverence to parents and ancestors, omens to encourage fertility and wealth, financial and social obligations contracted by both families at the betrothal, extensive gift giving etiquette, and the bride’s incorporation into her husband’s family are recurring elements. The different marriage cultures and customs provide us with not only a good grasp of the development of human history, but also a deeper understanding of the different living styles in different times and places. Today, modern Chinese wedding custom has emerged and replaced the complex and traditional Chinese wedding customs. Modern Chinese wedding customs has not differ much from traditional Chinese wedding customs except that it is more simplified and subdued. In this essay, I will discuss about the difference in the marriage customs between ancient China and contemporary China, and also its transformation and importance in today’s society.
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Exploring some changes
Usage of terms
The ancient China is a typical male patriarchal society. The system even defines marriage differently for the bride and groom. When a woman gets married, the Chinese character is “å«”. The character is composed of two radicals, from the left “å¥³”, which means “female”, and to the right “å®¶”, which means “home”, combining together it means a girl leaves the home of her parents when getting married. In spoken language, it is called “marry off”. For a man it is called “get married”. The Chinese character “å¨¶”, getting married, is composed of two parts. The upper part is “å-to take”, and the lower part is “å¥³girl”, meaning to take a girl home as wife. It shows that the marriage system in ancient China is closely related to the male patriarchal clan.
In ancient China, when a girl marries off, she no longer belongs to her own family and she had to put her husband’s family name before hers. From that day on, her real parents no longer had the right to interfere with the girl’s life in any way. Therefore, a girl’s parents would strive to give her a luxurious wedding ceremony since they took it as the last thing they could do for their daughter, and by doing so it might help solidify her status in her husband’s family.
In contemporary China, though the social status of women has greatly upgraded compared to that in the past, the term “marry off” is still kept in the daily language as according to the customs, once the girl marries off, she also has to take on the responsibility of taking care of her husband’s parents and runs the family.
Freedom of Marriage
From arranged marriages to blind dates, building a family in China is an evolving process driven by political change, economic development, and social trends, all intrinsically linked under the umbrella of globalization. Arranged marriage was very common in ancient China, especially during the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu dynasty) (770-476 BC), parents were the ultimate decision makers over their children’s destiny. Historically, in the patriarchal clan system of the old societies, children were considered “assets”. Therefore, an arranged marriage could be viewed as a business transaction that had much intrinsic as well as obvious values attached to it. Arranged marriages were then perceived as not so much a union of true love.
The Marriage Law passed in April 1950 was regarded as a landmark achievement for building a family, the basic unit of society, on the foundation of free will and equal rights since it formally ended the traditional practice of arranged or forced marriage across the country. However in a society dominated by political ideologies and concepts of class, marriage-making was featured as a strong pledge of securing revolution, rather than a natural binding of love. It was taken as granted that people could get married before they even know each other and the union helped people to better participate into the class struggle and realize revolutionary goals.
In 1980, the Marriage Law had its first major amendment, adding “broken relationship” as a precondition of divorce. One year later, the newspaper Market published the first marriage-seeking ad since 1949, and a new breed of matchmaking came to life in China.
Other than marriages arranged by parents, there has been a taboo in ancient China for young couple to make random acquaintance, and a marriage had to be produced by match-making only. Even if the young couple loves each other and wishes to get married, it has to be arranged by the match-maker. A marriage without match-making is immoral and illegal in the community.
However Communist Revolution in early 1920s has elevated the status of women in China. Also, along with the society’s progress and the transformation of people’s thinking, the practice of arranged marriage has been abolished. With more educated women in the society, women have now more rights and power than before, hence they are able to enjoy the liberty to select the groom of their choice. Though arranged marriages are no longer practiced, match-making still exists in contemporary China. Many kind-hearted people or professional marriage agencies will introduce young people to each other and help them start their own romance, because in the old tradition, match-making is still a very important conduct of benevolence.
Changes to Pre-Wedding Preparations
Three letters and six etiquettes (ä¸‰ä¹¦å…ç¤¼)
In the past, the prospective groom’s side would send letters to the family of the bride.
There were a total of three letters (ä¸‰ä¹¦) :
â€¢ Request letter – from the groom’s family to the family of the bride, formal requesting permission to marry
â€¢ Gift letter – sent with the gifts to the bride’s family before the wedding
â€¢ Wedding letter – sent on the day of the wedding by the family of the groom to accept the bride into their house
In addition, it is common to observe 6 etiquettes (å…ç¤¼) leading towards the actual wedding :
1. Getting a match-maker to convey the groom’s family request to the bride’s side.
2. Exchanging both bride & groom’s date of birth to check on their compatibility.
3. If all goes well and both parties are happy with the arrangement, the groom’s side would send an initial gift together with a letter requesting for the marriage.
4. If the bride’s family accepts the wedding proposal, the formal gift (Guo Da Li) will be sent by the groom to confirm the acceptance of the marriage.
5. An auspicious date is selected for the wedding.
6. The day of the traditional wedding ceremony.
Nowadays in a modern wedding, most Chinese families no longer adhere to the sending of the above three letters because couples would just hold a “Meet the Parents” session before discussing about marriage. Also, to allow marriage to be more direct and save time, the custom of sending the three letters have been eroded. On top of that, not all the six etiquettes may be followed, or even if followed, would have been modified in certain ways.
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The practice of predicting a marriage by matching the Five Elements and the birth dates came into fashion in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). The compatibility of the marrying couple was analyzed with the help of a chart of the couple’s so-called “eight characters” (å…«å-). Fortune-tellers played a very important role, as they could determine a person’s eight characters based on astrological calculations. They matched a person’s birth year, month, date and time separately to the 10 “heavenly trunks” (å¤©å¹²) and 4 “earthly branches” (åœ°æ”¯) and matched the values against the “five elements” of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The result was a person’s eight characters. Family members of the couple intending to get married would take the detailed birth information about the prospective couple to the fortune-teller to see whether their eight characters were in harmony. Ancient Chinese people believed that the date of birth determines your future; a good birth date could bring luck not only to his/her own self, but also to his/her family. Otherwise, the couple would be unsuitable and would bring harm to the couple as well as their families, causing conflict between the couple, or causing the family fortunes to decline.
Up till today, many couples still follow this custom of checking their birth dates for compatibility before their wedding. This is because they believe that by comparing, it helps to ensure that they are a suitable pair and would have a harmonious marriage. However, some modern families, for example, Chinese Christians have done away with the checking and exchanging of the bride & groom’s birth dates because of their religion and they have different beliefs.
Sending Formal Gifts (è¿‡å¤ç¤¼)
Traditionally, the groom will send the bride’s gifts as requested by the bride’s family. The monetary and jewelry gifts may also be negotiated upon. For example, the Teochew dialect group may request for four types of gold (å››ç‚¹é‡‘), dried seafood for Cantonese, pig trotters for Hokkiens. Gifts and cash are delivered to the bride’s home by the groom’s family. The bride’s family will take some of the items and return the rest to avoid the impression that they are selling their daughter. The groom’s family will usually present gifts such as dragon and phoenix (é¾™å‡¤) bridal cakes, wine, sugar or sweets, livestock meat etc. The bride’s family will usually distribute the bridal cakes to friends and relatives. Whole suckling pigs are often offered to the bride’s family. The practice of sending formal gifts is to show the groom’s financial dependability and assures the bride’s family that she will be well taken care of after marriage.
In modern day, this is still practiced except that the type of gifts presented may differ. Nowadays, both the initial gifts and formal gifts are often sent on the same day, rather than on two separate events. Also, modern day gifts may include dried seafood, canned food rather than livestock for practical reasons, so that the family can keep for as long as they want. As for the monetary gifts and jewelry, the groom will either pay a certain amount or offer to pay for the cost of the wedding. The negotiations will also take place for the number of tables for the wedding banquet. Sometimes, the bride side may also pay for some of the cost if the groom cannot afford it. These will be discussed between the families until all the terms are clearly agreed upon.
Setting up the Bridal Bed (å®‰åºŠ)
Traditionally, an auspicious date is selected and the groom’s family will invite a respected female relative or friend to “set the bridal bed” at the new home. Red beans/green beans, lychee, dates, peanuts, oranges and other fruits are often scattered onto the bed. In some part of China in the old days, an unmarried young boy will be invited to sleep in the bridal bed the night before the wedding to bring fertility to the newlyweds. This is known as the Bridal Bed Setting (å®‰åºŠ) Ritual, which symbolises good health, abundance of fortune and offspring for the couple.
This practice is still being carried out now. The only difference is that this procedure is done sometimes even on the eve or day before the wedding or on the same day of the sending the formal gifts (è¿‡å¤ç¤¼) or even a few weeks prior to Guo Da Li. Nowadays, so long as this is done, there is no issue as to doing it on a specific date.
Combing of the Bride’s Hair (ä¸Šå¤´)
Traditionally, at the dawn of the wedding day or the night before the wedding, the bride will be bathed in water added with pamelo, lime leaves to cleanse the body. She will put on new clothes and sit before a set of dragon and phoenix candles (é¾™å‡¤çƒ›). Then the “hair dressing” (ä¸Šå¤´) ritual is performed for her. A “good luck woman”, woman with living parents, spouse and children, will come to dress her hair, tying up her hair in a bun, in the style of a married woman.
The first combing symbolizes: from beginning till the end.
The second combing symbolizes: harmony from now till old age.
The third combing symbolizes: sons and grandsons all over the place.
The fourth combing stands for: good wealth and a long-lasting marriage.
In modern day, this ritual is still being practiced because the whole act of combing the bride’s hair signifies a long and lasting marriage and also symbolizes the adulthood of the couple. Usually, sweet pink rice ball soup (æ±¤åœ†) will be served after the hair combing ceremony to wish the couple a complete and sweet marriage.
Changes to Wedding Day Customs
In the past, the newlywed couple would throw a wedding banquet. All their friends and relatives would be invited to celebrate the marriage. Generally, separate feasts were given by the parents of the bride and the groom for their respective friends and families. There could be a single feast for each or a series of feasts up to 7 days, depending on how much they can afford.
In modern day, a wedding banquet is usually held at a restaurant or hotel in the evening, on the same day as the tea ceremony, to witness the union of the couples. Family members of the bride and groom would be assigned to the first few tables, while the rest of the tables would be filled up by friends. However, the food served during the banquet is still similar to those served in traditional wedding feasts. For example, fish would be served as it symbolizes “abundance”, and a whole fish would mean “completeness” in Chinese culture.
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