These not only signified that the woman had promised to marry the man and was not allowed to change her mind once the gifts were accepted; it also meant economic compensation for the bride’s family. Some people would separate the engagement period into two stages, “offering minor betrothal gifts” and “offering major betrothal gifts”. The time between offering those was not fixed. The minor betrothal gifts, like jewellery or tea, were a kind of engagement gift. The bridegroom’s family would first offer the gifts to the bride’s family through the matchmaker.
Sometimes the future mother-in-law would visit the bride’s family in order to present the gifts herself and the bride-to-be was expected to show respectful manners in order to show the seriousness about the marriage. After receiving the minor betrothal gifts, the bride’s side would serve a big dinner and present some gifts like hats or shoes to the bridegroom’s family in return, but the most important one was a piece of sewing or embroidery work which was personally made by the bride-to-be. This showed off her skill’s and intelligence – the more complex the design, the greater the bride’s mental ability.
The offering of the major betrothal gifts was more formal and ceremonious. The gifts were presented on an auspicious day; friends and relatives of both families were usually invited for this ceremony. In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) it was likely to offer headgear, cosmetics, fans with painted flowers, painting, money and fruit as major betrothal gifts for the bride-to-be. In the late Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD) it was also common to present many food boxes with dried noodles, cakes, desserts, fresh and dried fruit, wine, tea and so on.
The matchmaker and relatives of the bridegroom would take the gifts to the bride’s family. As they carried the gifts, they would parade through the streets to give an impression that they were rich and very generous, as the numbers of gifts corresponded to the economic and social status of the man’s family. After receiving the gifts, the bride’s family would offer tea or fruits and show the gifts to neighbours and thereby raise the bride’s social status. Sometimes the bride’s family would send back gifts, like pens, Chinese ink, paper and ink-stones.
The next step was to decide on the wedding day. The groom’s family would ask the bride’s family to choose among several auspicious wedding dates suggested by the man’s family. Until today, Chinese families still choose auspicious dates for the wedding, which are based on the bride and groom’s day and time of birth. Wedding Preparations The first and most important task for the bridegroom’s family was to prepare the bridal chamber. This was the “new house” for the couple. Most bridal chambers were nearby the bedroom of the parents-in-law, because the bride should look after her mother-in-law.
Typical furniture for the bedroom included a bed, one large and one small table, a wardrobe, chest drawers, chairs and a clothes-rack. For the study, a desk and bookshelves were essential items. Wealthy families would use rare woods to make the bridal chamber furniture. They hired craftsman to customize the furniture. These craftsmen would decorate the furniture with various kinds of designs, which were not only for decorative purposes, but were also the expression of good wished for the couple.
In modern times, this custom is still in use in a simplified version. In my experience, everything besides the furniture was renewed, like curtains, bedding, carpet, lamps and so on. While the family of the bridegroom arranged the bridal chamber, the bride’s family prepared the trousseau. In ancient times, the bride’s trousseau referred to the dressing case a woman used for her make-up. Later, it was extended to include all practical and ritual articles the bride would bring to the bridegroom’s family at her wedding.
The bride’s parents would prepare a generous and valuable trousseau to express their love for their daughter, to declare the families’ good reputation and to ensure that their daughter would be well regarded in her husband’s family. Usually these wedding preparations became a heavy economic burden on the family because of the large expenses. Wealthy families would provide an extravagant trousseau, including house and land, shops, servants and maids, gold, silver, jewellery, silks and various kinds of daily utensils. Middle-class families prepared them according to their respective economic condition.
In general there were certain essential articles like wooden utensils, for example jewellery boxes, dressing tables or chests; decorative utensils, including jade ornaments, porcelain vessels, wine vessels, tea jars and so on; cloth products, like quilts, pillows, mosquito nets, curtains and so on; washing and dressing utensils, including mirrors, combs, hair pins, basins for washing the face and feet, bathtubs, et cetera. One or three days before the wedding ceremony, the bridegroom’s family would send other betrothal gifts to the bride’s family as a reminder that it was time to send the dowry.
This dowry was placed on special tables and firmly tied with a red rope to the railings. The value of it was measured according to the number of these tables. At the bridegroom’s residence, family and friends would be waiting to receive the procession bearing the dowry. Its arrival would be welcomed by drums, gongs, pipes and fireworks. Afterwards, the groom’s helpers would unload the dowry items. The first items to be carried inside the house were mosquito net, bedding and the wardrobes. Finally, the bridegroom’s family would hold a grand feast to entertain all the relatives who were part of the dowry parade.
The making of the bed in the bridal chamber was another important custom. This task was performed by a fully blessed woman, meaning a woman with a living husband, sons and daughters, since it was believed that such a woman could bring good luck to the couple. After the bed was in place, children were invited onto the bed as an omen of fertility. For the same reason, red dates, oranges, seeds, peanuts and other fruits were spread onto the bed. This is done even in the modern times. On my own wedding day, held in Tianjin, China, I found peanuts, seeds and dried dates scattered on the bed, hidden underneath the bedding.
After the procedure of making the bed, there were still many other things to do, such as placing the decorative articles – like paper-cut designs, drawings and wedding couplets -, hanging the mirror, placing wardrobes, chest and cloth racks. There were many different symbols wishing good luck to the couple, like a frog design, which was a symbol for fertility, a flying phoenix design or the dragon-and-phoenix design for prosperity. One of the most important symbol one can find in every room at a Chinese wedding until today is the Double Happiness symbol. It is a standard character for happiness.
Meanwhile the last ritual to be performed by the bride’s family before the wedding ceremony was the daughter’s crying and the singing of sad songs at their departure. The night before the wedding the bride should express her sorrow, grief or even anger at her departure by crying and singing either about her gratefulness toward her parents, the deep affection for her brothers and sisters or the closeness with her friends. Nowadays it is usual that the bride spends the night before the wedding away from the groom. While the bride’s family was immersed in sorrow the night before the wedding, the bridegroom’s side would be busy with other tasks.
These included eight or sixteen virgin boys singing congratulatory songs in the bridal chamber to frighten away evil spirits. Also they had to find two healthy, good-looking boys to sleep on the wedding bed, because generally, it was believed that once the wedding bed had been made, it should not be left empty for even one night, nor should the groom be allowed to sleep on it alone. The people believed that this would increase the chances of the couple having a healthy firstborn son. The Wedding Day Weddings were occasions filled with an atmosphere of celebration and beating drums.
First, the groom had to show his respect and admiration for his bride and therefore he had to go to her home to escort her from there to the groom’s residence, where the wedding ceremony was held. Before the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 BC), escorting the bride took usually place after dusk. Later, as astrology became more popular, lucky times were calculated and considered. When the bridal chair was about to start from the bridegroom’s residence, firecrackers, gongs and drums send it off, during which an old couple who had many children and grandchildren was invited to act as the two immortals of happiness and wealth.
They would inspect the sedan chair and then hold a piece of iron with smouldering incense into it in order to drive out evil spirits. The groom led the procession and the bridal chair was preceded by attendants with lanterns, musicians and a ‘dancing’ lion. As the escorts arrived at the bride’s home, her family would stand in the street to stop the carriage from advancing. This had two practical functions, first to win the bride some time to put on her makeup and change her clothes and secondly to wait for the auspicious time.
While the two families waited, relatives, friends and neighbours would joke with one another and a band would play festive music. During that time the bride would begin preparing for her entrance. She would change her hairstyle, discarding the hairstyle which she wore as a girl, meaning that she was no longer a girl but a wife. Then she would apply makeup and changing her dress. The traditional wedding dress included a red coat, a pair of red shoes, a ribbon, a skirt, a phoenix coronet and a robe embroidered with auspicious designs. At last she had to cover up her face by draping a red silk veil or a ‘curtain’ of tassels or beads on her head.
After completing her wedding preparations, the bride would bow to her parents and the ancestral tablets. Only then could she appear in front of the guests. One can see a clear Western influence in this point. Nowadays the bride usually wears a white wedding dress, like women in the Western countries wear them, in the wedding ceremony itself; also she would throw her bridal bouquet she carried the entire ceremony through. Like in Europe or America, single women would gather behind the bride, trying to catch it. After that, the bride would change into other dresses to walk around to the guests to thank them for their attendance.
Back to traditional weddings, through the matchmaker, the groom would give some money wrapped in a piece of red paper to the bride’s family to ask them to open the gate, so that the bridal chair could be carried in. Since a bride should not get into the bridal sedan chair by herself, she was carried by her father or brother. Once the bride was seated in the sedan chair, she would be escorted to her new home. The bridal procession had to leave in the same order in which they arrived, yet, it was not allowed to take the same route they took to reach the bride’s residence.
Nowadays, usually the groom picks up the bride from the place she spent the night with a convey of red cars in which members and friends of both families sit. Just before the procession arrived at the groom’s home, firecrackers were set off again. The bride was not allowed to get out of the chair by stepping on the ground directly. Instead she had to walk on mats or a red carpet. When she came before the gate, she should not enter the house by stepping over the threshold. Usually, a saddle would be placed over the threshold and the bride would have to step over it. This symbolized safety and good luck.
The next thing the relatives did was scattering beans and corn in the courtyard to drive away evil spirits. For the same reason, the groom had to shoot three arrows into the wedding hall before the bride entered it. After the bride finally reached the hall under the guidance of the matchmaker and her bride mates, the next procedure was the formal wedding ceremony. In contrast to the elaborate customs, the wedding itself was relatively simple. At each altar which was set up, offerings of food, fruit and flowers were laid. The bridegroom inserted fresh incensed sticks into a bowl.
Then the couple were conducted to the family altar to pay respect to Heaven and Earth and the ancestors. Tea, usually with two lotus seeds and two dates, in a cup were given to the groom’s parents. The tea ceremony was an important custom during the wedding ceremony. It is China’s national drink and serving it is a sign of respect. Lotus sees and dates are used, because the ancient Chinese believed that this would help the newlyweds getting children very soon and every year, which would ensure many grandchildren. On the wedding day, the bride would serve her parents tea before the groom arrives to show her respect and gratefulness.
Traditionally, after the wedding ceremony, the new couple would serve tea to the groom’s elders by addressing them by formal title, for instance first aunt or youngest uncle. The general rule is to have the woman on the left and the man on the right side. The people being served would sit in chairs while the couple would kneel in front of them. The newlyweds served tea in a particular order, starting with the parent’s, then proceeding from the oldest family to the youngest. In return, the couple would receive red envelopes filled with money or jewellery.
At modern weddings, the tea is served at the wedding ceremony only to the bride and groom’s parents. Later the couple goes around to each person attending the wedding to drink with them, usually Chinese wine. From my own experience, since there are too many people to drink with, bride and groom usually drink water, disguised as Chinese spirit. In traditional weddings, the bride and the groom each held one end of a red-and-green ribbon with a love knot in the middle. Then the groom walked with his back to the bridal chamber, pulling the bride into the room and to go a short distance to welcome her. After they entered the bridal cha