A Few Chinese Weddings —by Jinny Batterson
If June has traditionally been the “peak wedding month” in the U.S., weddings are more widely dispersed through the year in China. The holiday surrounding International Labor Day on May 1 is a popular time for young Chinese couples to have a ceremony. Then, most of the Chinese workforce enjoys a few days off, so the wedding can be followed by a brief honeymoon. Over the course of several prolonged stays in China, I’ve had a chance to view three Chinese weddings (well, maybe 2 1/2—in one the groom was not Chinese). Each ceremony was unique, but all shared one feature nearly universal in Chinese celebrations—an abundance of food.
The first wedding I attended took place at a hotel/restaurant complex in the small Xinjiang town of Ala’er early on a weekend afternoon. The bride’s family came from a different part of China and were represented just by a single aunt who had made the lengthy trip to participate in the celebration. The groom’s mother, however, was local. A substantial proportion of the ceremony was given over to gestures of respect for the bride’s upcoming mother-in-law. There were also a few Buddhist prayers and obeisances. The wedding couple had hired a master of ceremonies to conduct the service, at which the leaders of the work units of the prospective couple “gave them away” and vouched for their respective good characters. Once the appropriate formalities had been observed, the feasting started. The meal contained dishes both local and exotic. Toasts were offered. The bride, who’d initially worn a Western-style white dress, reappeared in a more traditional red “qi pao,” a long sheath with slits up the sides, as the banquet got underway. She and the groom circulated, greeting each table of guests with smiles and toasts. At the end of the feast, most guests left quickly. A few of the older, less affluent-looking attendees remained and bagged up some of the leftovers to take home.
My second wedding joined two former Chinese teaching colleagues. My husband Jim delighted in having played a minor match-making role in their courtship, goading the prospective groom into proposing despite his shy disposition. For this celebration, both families were from the region and converged on an area restaurant at about midday of wedding day. There was little formal ceremony, just a greeting by the bridal couple at the door, where arriving guests proferred small red envelopes filled with cash. Again, the initial costume for the marrying couple was Western-style—suit and tie for the groom, long white dress for the bride. Again, these clothes were discarded once greetings had been completed, replaced by a qi pao for the bride and a less formal shirt and slacks for the groom.
The third ceremony was a mixture—the bride’s Chinese parents had chosen an auspicious day for a ceremony, even though the civil portion of this multi-ethnic wedding had taken place earlier. More of the guests were Chinese than not. One of the groomsmen, following local tradition, offered cigarettes to arriving male guests, a custom that I hope will soon die out, since too many Chinese men now court premature deaths by smoking. This time there was no white dress, just elegant but informal clothes by both bride and groom. Again there was abundant food. Again the wedding couple circulated to each table and shared a celebratory toast. (The groom told us later that a helpful waitress had substituted water in their glasses for the clear but potent mao tai that is traditional for toasting.) Again various university officials testified to the good characters of the bride and groom. This time, there were wedding pictures of the bride, her family, and the groom, most taken beneath a ceremonial arch of colored balloons at the restaurant entrance.
Which brings me to another aspect of Chinese wedding customs—pre-wedding photo shoots. Although I’ve been to just a handful of actual wedding ceremonies, I’ve seen dozens of prospective couples in public parks or beauty spots having their wedding photos (or, increasingly, their wedding videos) taken. Nearly always, the bride and groom wear Western wedding attire, rented for the occasion. Nearly always, the bride-to-be gazes lovingly up at her prospective groom, who in turn gazes just as lovingly down at the bride, who may be seated on a park bench, on an especially green stretch of lawn, under a majestic tree, or beside a rushing stream or waterfall. Some of these photos and videos can show up the glitziest, sappiest romance stills and films from Hollywood.
Once the shoot is over, the clothes go back to the rental store, make-up comes off, elaborate hairdos are disassembled, and both bride and groom go back to being the complex, non-Hollywood humans that nearly all of us are most of the time. But the photos and videos will be stored and carefully kept for years, sometimes even after the resulting marriages have dissolved.