When I was first approached to cover the basics of a Chinese wedding, I thought it impossible. I mean there are so many things to consider, so many small details even I didn’t know about. But to be fair, the last time I had attended a completely traditional family on my maternal side of the family was sixteen years ago. However, as I started looking into it, online and talking to family members, I grew more and more interested especially thinking about what I wanted to do for my own wedding (because obviously my family wouldn’t let me get away with not doing a tradition Chinese wedding either). So today, I’m gonna be covering the three major components of a traditional Chinese wedding: the tea ceremony, the wedding games, and of course the most important part, the banquet.
I’m aware in this day and age that reading blocks of text can be quite a bore, so I’ve decided to go about this in two ways. The first section will be an in-depth description of the aforementioned three components of a traditional Chinese wedding and immediately following those sections will be a tl;dr summary. It will still include all the important thing you need to know but in a more concise manner. If you want to know more details such as the symbolism behind a certain action or alternative options, then I would suggest reading the longer blocks of text. Without further ado, let’s get started.
Ok, I guess that was a lie, I’m not gonna get into it just yet. There are just a few things I’d like to mention before we get into the actual wedding customs. The most important is dress code, or rather, what not to wear to a Chinese wedding. Though red is considered a lucky or auspicious colour, red is reserved for the bride. As a guest, wearing red is can be considered rude because it looks as though you are trying to compete with the bride for attention. In western culture, white wedding dresses are symbolic of the bride’s purity , but in Chinese culture, white is symbolic of death and mourning and therefore should generally be avoided especially at a wedding. The same goes for black. So what colour would be best then if not red, white, or black? It’s suggested to stick to warmer colours such as pink, purple, and peach or even yellow or orange. That being said, modern Chinese weddings have moved towards the bride having a white wedding dress and allowing guests to wear black attire.
Even before the tea ceremony, there are wedding games. These typically take between half an hour to an hour to conduct. It begins with the arrival of the groom and his groomsmen to the home of the bride, usually in the early morning (generally around 9am is a good time). They will ring the doorbell and attempt to gain admittance to the residence. It is the bridesmaids’ responsibility to keep them from entering the house until they can prove their worth. There is often some friendly banter through the door before the bridesmaids are willing to open the door, even if it’s just a crack to hear what the groom and co. have to offer in terms of a bribe. Usually the bridesmaids will ask for lucky money amounting in $9999.99 or $8888.88, but luckily, the groom doesn’t really have to pay that much, a small symbolic amount ($20-$100) is usually sufficient. Once the bribe has been accepted, the groom and his groomsmen must participate in some trials to show that they are worthy. These trials do not test the groom and co. arbitrarily (and not because we just want to watch them suffer, although that is pretty funny in and of itself), but they’re representative of the good and the bad, the ups and the downs that will inevitably come with marriage and a future life together. These trials can happen in one of two locations. One is outside the home, but as it’s fairly early in the morning, I’m sure no one wants to be woken up by screaming men (oh yes, there is definitely the potential for that) and laughing guests. The second is in the front entrance of the home. The bride doesn’t usually make her appearance until these trials are complete. It is so much more entertaining when the bride is able to watch all the festivities either through her window or by live streaming on a mobile device.
Without giving anything away, some common games include singing love songs so loudly that the bride can hear him from wherever she is, quizzing the groom about the bride and forcing them to exert themselves physically for every incorrect answer, eating food that is very sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, etc. to represents all the aspects of married life, and the seaweed game. Only after they have successfully completed these tasks will the bride emerge.
Prove yourself worthy through some gruelling tasks or you’re never gonna get to see the bride or get married.
The next part of the wedding is the tea ceremony, to which only the family and wedding party are in attendance. In families that choose to do two tea ceremonies, there are some variations in the order that they choose to do it; some will choose to do it first at the groom’s home and then the bride’s, others reverse it. However, in modern times, it’s more likely that the couple chooses to do the tea ceremony with members of both families present. Of course with a family as large as ours (we’re talking about both the bride and the groom’s sides of the family), doing a single ceremony is impractical. Regardless of how they choose to do it, there are some things that remain the same. The first is an ancestral altar or table. Common items include flowers, wine, incenses, and of course the tea set from which the tea for the ceremony will be served. Some families choose to have one candle that the couple lights together, symbolizing the joining of the two families, while others have two separate candles shaped like a phoenix and a dragon. The phoenix and the dragon, as you will see, are common tropes in Chinese traditions and culture; they symbolize the male and the female. The staple to this ceremony is of course the tea. The type of tea chosen can vary based on the symbolic meaning behind each of them. Common choices include green tea and black teas. Often times, black teas will be mixed with fruits and nuts, signifying different things, but usually relating to future children to be had by the couple. For example, adding lotus seeds and red dates symbolizes a wish for the couple to bear children quickly and continuously.
Depending on the number of guests, the young couple may choose to have the guest seated facing the elders as they are being served tea. However, as mentioned earlier, with a family as large as ours, we’d need an auditorium to seat all the guests. As with a semi-traditional Chinese wedding I attended a few years back, the guests are most likely going to have to stand wherever they can find a spot. The couple are expected to serve the guests in order of seniority. In some families parents are served before grandparents, but in others the reverse is true. Grand uncles and aunts, uncles and aunts, elder siblings, and elder cousins are all served in succession after the parents and grandparents. It is important to note that in the situation where the living member of an elder couple is absent, the one present will drink on behalf of the absent spouse. However, an extra cup of tea is not poured for a deceased spouse. Traditionally, the couple is expected to kneel in front of the family members when presenting the tea, but more recently, couples simply bow while standing.
The tea ceremony is an intimate event that’s restricted to the family and wedding party. Offerings are made to the gods & ancestors and tea is served to elders in order of seniority.
The banquet is something I’m not as familiar with, but this is generally how it is conducted. The guests are greeted by the couple and their parents at the entrance to the venue. From there they move on to the guest registration table. At this table, the guests not only “check in,” (same deal, signing a guest book or a red cloth, depending on the couple’s preference) but also find out where they are to be seated and drop off their lucky money envelopes for the couple. Unlike in Western weddings, Chinese wedding guest give lucky money instead of buying a gift. The guests that are closer to the couple (like parents or siblings which is not applicable in this situation), are expected to give a greater amount of money. On average, guests are expected to give $100 or more per adult attending, which is symbolic of wishing the couple a long and prosperous life together. A rough translation of the saying associated with this notion is “100 years of happiness together.” Those running the table (most likely the bridesmaids at this point in time), are responsible for ensuring that guests write their names on the envelopes. Not only is this for the purposes of returning thanks where it’s due, but its also a way of record keeping because if and when guests host a wedding for themselves or for their children, the amount is reciprocated. Once the majority of guests have “registered” at the guest table and been seated, the wedding party makes their entrance.
In traditional Chinese weddings, there are typically three to four dress changes for the bride over the course of the day. So over the course of the evening, so don’t be surprised if the bride and sometimes the groom changes into more comfortable attire to mingle amongst the guests. This is especially necessary as the couple, their parents and sometimes the maid of honour and best man are expected to go from table to table and have a toast drunk to the couple’s future. Along with this, there are a second set of wedding games. These are usually assigned to the groom and the groomsmen (well they don’t have to be but it’s only fair that they have to contribute to the wedding in regards to making up some games since the bridesmaids already took care of the ones in the morning). These games are specifically for the bride and groom and have a tendency to get very rowdy. Often, for the sake of time, only two to three games are played. Because Chinese weddings are generally quite noisy, some small children may not be able to handle it, so it is advised that if you have younger children that you find a babysitter for them that night. Of course, we can’t forget about the speeches, which are not unlike the speeches of all other weddings; a time to recall good memories and embarrass the couple with cute stories.
While all the shenanigans are going around, the most important thing, the food, is being served. The most important thing to note for guests who haven’t attended Chinese weddings or banquets before is that there is A LOT of food. A Chinese style banquet typically features eight to twelve courses served family style. For the sake of sanitation and etiquette, one should always use the communal utensils and not your own to serve yourself from the dish. So with that in mind, make sure you PACE YOURSELF (unless you want to die, but it’s a wedding, you should not eat so much that you’re going to die)! A good rule to follow is to try one piece of everything in a dish that has multiple components once (so only one helping, even if you think you’re a big eater, after twelve courses where you’ve had several helpings, you will explode). Typical dishes served at a Chinese wedding include cold cuts, lobster with noodles, fish, and shark fin soup. If you’ve learned anything from reading up to this point, you’ll know that these dishes are chosen for their symbolic value (and because they taste amazing). Shark fin and lobster are symbols of wealth (because they’re expensive), noodles for longevity (same reason it’s served for birthdays and new years), fish represents plentifulness, and so on.
As with most weddings, as the evening winds to an end, most people like to get up and dance for a bit. I, myself have never stayed long enough at a Chinese wedding to partake in it and if I did, it was fifteen years ago so, I may not remember.
Guests are greeted at the entrance by the couple and their parents. They then move onto signing the guestbook, drop off their red envelope (monetary gift, usually ~$100 per person) or gifts (rarely seen in Chinese weddings), and are shown to their seats.
There will be LOTS of food, typically 8-12 dishes that are served family style. PACE YOURSELF! Have a little of each so you can have a taste of all dishes. Things can get a little rowdy and are generally quite loud.
If you can remember all that, you should be good. But most importantly, this is a wedding, so don’t forget to have fun people!