Tag Archives: Chinese weddings

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses

little girls in frilly dresses, Qingdao, China

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses    —by Jinny Batterson

Last fall, one of our favorite former students in China emailed us exciting news—she was about to get married.  A few weeks later, our former student, “Mona,”  sent a second message with an attachment: a picture of her and her new husband in their wedding clothes.  Mona looked fetching, much dressier than the Mona I was used to—she posed, seated on a high stool, in an elegant flower-print dress with a brimmed hat to match. Her husband, decked out in a casual summer suit, looked over her shoulder.

For much of June this year, I had a chance to travel in mainland China and to reconnect with some former students and colleagues. Especially wonderful was a chance to visit Mona, whose new husband had been a high school classmate I didn’t yet know. They’d chosen each other after a long, sometimes long-distance courtship. I got to spend a couple of days with them. While I was visiting, Mona explained the logistics of arranging her wedding pictures, an increasingly common part of Chinese wedding preparations:

Few people actually buy clothes for their wedding pictures or have pictures taken on the wedding day itself, she explained. Rather, they rent dressy attire from specialized businesses and pick out a place and time to have professional still pictures taken, sometimes adding a brief video. They usually choose a historic or natural beauty spot, on a weekend day when both partners are off work. Because Mona is short for a woman of her generation in China, preparations were somewhat complicated. One weekend, she and her groom-to-be visited a rental agency and picked out clothes they liked in close to the proper size. The following weekend, they went back to the agency to pick up the clothes, which had been altered slightly for better fit.  On still a third weekend, she and her fiancé dressed in their rented finery and met a hired wedding photographer at the agreed upon site and time. Scheduling was tight and did not make allowances for weather. The day Mona’s pictures were taken, it poured down rain. The search for a “perfect shot” took most of a very long day and left both photographer and subjects tired and bedraggled. It took a fourth week to get the rental clothes dried, cleaned, and returned to the rental agency.   

Not long after my visit with Mona and her new spouse, I ventured out on my own to parts of central and northern China where I’d never visited before. In the northern seaside town of Qingdao, I came across a cobblestone plaza more filled than usual with elaborately dressed Chinese.  Primed by Mona’s descriptions of her wedding picture adventures, I realized that what I was viewing were a whole series of wedding photo shoots. June is a prime wedding month in China, just as in the U.S.  I counted eighteen different couples having their wedding pictures taken. The weather was windy and blustery—gowns and photo accessories were hard to keep steady. A dozen of the brides were wearing western-style dresses in white, while others had flowing formals in red, considered a lucky color in China. For one set of pictures, an entire wedding party was assembled, including five or six young girls in frilly white dresses. 

Over the course of this China visit, I noticed more and more young girls dressed in frills and bows, and not always in wedding groups. I’d see them on public busses, on trains and subways, in public parks. All were with at least one parent or grandparent. Often, a parkland family group would be taking selfies, the grandparents somewhat subdued in both manner and dress, the dads fairly casual, the moms dressier, anchored with the latest shoe fashions, the daughters often in white or pastel lacy dresses not much less formal than bridal finery. I crossed my fingers that the attention these girls were getting was a sign that the traditional stigma of having a daughter in China was lessening. None of the girls I saw looked neglected or abused. Many were far from docile. Most seemed valued family members, confident without being arrogant.

A few times, I saw girls and young women in less frilly outfits—on one park walk, the mom and dad in front of me strolled along at a normal pace, while their two daughters in trainers, shorts and tank tops raced ahead running sprints. At another public square, I noticed a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt with an English-language slogan: “Women are the Future,” it proclaimed.

My re-entry into the U.S. was through our 49th state, Alaska, where few women are shrinking violets. I saw the kennels run by the family of Susan Butcher, who’d earlier won the  long-distance Iditerod sled dog race four times.  I got to meet her elder daughter, now actively involved in training new generations of sled dogs for new challenges. Perhaps China’s daughters, and America’s, will one day soon be ready to take their places in a rapidly changing world that needs and welcomes their skills.   

A Few Chinese Weddings

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.