That’s me in my Chinese wedding dress “kwa”. Photo: Emilie Sommer
Wedding guests traditionally do not usually observe Chinese wedding traditions because most of them take place prior to the ceremony. Like other Asian cultures, the Chinese wedding emphasizes the joining of two families – and in the old days incorporating the bride into the groom’s family – rather than the marriage of two individuals. In fact, back in the day the ceremony itself was simply held at home and attended by family members. Guests were only invited to a reception banquet afterwards.
While the reception banquets are still similar, some Chinese ceremonies today incorporate Christian overtones. I will give you a brief introduction to a select number of traditions that you may encounter as a guest or as a member of the wedding party. Please note that traditions vary depending on which region, or even village, of China the families are from.
What You Should Wear
This is more about what not to wear. Do not wear white as it is a color associated with funerals. Plus, it is generally tacky to wear white on someone else’s wedding day anyway. While I would suggest avoiding black as well, for the same reason, in today’s culture, it is more acceptable to wear black. While red and gold are the lucky colors, in my personal opinion, I would also avoid wearing those as they should be reserved for the bride. Other than that, feel free to wear bright and happy colors.
If you are a groomsman, bridesmaid, close friend or relative, you may be asked to participate in door games. According to tradition, the groom and his attendants process to pick up the bride at her house. Upon arrival, the groom is met by the bride’s friends and they ask him to play some games before they let him inside to see the bride. Basically, he has to bribe his way in. At my friend’s wedding, all the bridesmaids and the bride put on some lipstick and kissed a piece of paper and the groom had to figure out which pair of lips on the paper belonged to his bride. It’s all in good fun!
Traditionally, the tea ceremony is done twice at the respective homes of the parents of the bride and groom. The bride kneels and offers tea to her parents alone at home before the ceremony as a way of thanking them for raising her. After the ceremony, both the bride and groom kneel and offer tea to the groom’s family as a sign of respect. They start with the groom’s parents and then the rest of his family elders starting with the oldest. Those involved with the tea ceremony are usually only those relatives that are older than the bride and the groom.
Today, I have seen the tea ceremony incorporated in different ways. I have seen the tea ceremony conducted as part of the wedding reception, as well as during the ceremony, where the guests can witness this ritual. I have also seen it where the newlyweds offer tea to both sets of parents and relatives at the same time. If you are a bridesmaid, you may be asked to assist in serving the tea. If you are a relative of the couple participating in the tea ceremony, the woman should sit on the left and man on the right. Once the tea is offered, take a sip and offer the newlyweds some words of wisdom and well wishes and give them a lucky red envelope ( or “lai see,” which means “lucky”) stuffed with money.
Photo by: KateHaus Photography
I only bring up the bride’s outfit or outfits as it is a show in itself! The bride usually wears a traditional red dress (known as Qi Pao, Qun Gua, Kwa or Cheongsam) for the tea ceremony. Couples today often have a church or civil wedding ceremony to which the bride would wear a Western white wedding gown. Once at the reception banquet, the bride may start out in either the white dress or traditional red dress, and then elect to change into a cocktail party dress later on in the evening.
Photo: Noel St. John
The Banquet “Feast”
In general, wedding receptions tend to be large (over 200 people) and boisterous. If the reception is held at a Chinese restaurant, then expect a feast to come. Chinese banquets will have at least eight courses, as the number eight is considered lucky and the name of each dish symbolizes happiness, longevity or fertility, so pace yourselves. During dinner, expect the bride and groom to visit each table (See Table Visits below). After dinner, there are usually some newlywed games that are silly but all in good fun. Many of the elderly guests will depart after dinner. For entertainment, sometimes you may see a Lion Dance, where dancers will perform acrobatic moves to drums, gongs, and cymbals.
Back to the feasts, some of the dishes you may encounter include: shark’s fin soup (symbolizes wealth), roast suckling pig (virginity), whole duck and/or lobster (for red to represent celebration), squab (for peace), chicken, crab or vegetables with sea cucumber (selflessness), fish (abundance in life), and noodles (longevity). For dessert, you will be served sweet red bean soup and sweet buns (for the sweet life). It is completely acceptable to take home leftover food.
Photo by: Jessica Sunshine Photography
The newlyweds are expected to visit each guest table, along with the wedding party, carrying a drink with them to thank their guests for coming. As the wedding party arrives, the guests all stand and raise their glasses to toast the bride and groom. Anyone from the table can offer a quick toast and the newlyweds are suppose to drink to each toast. Sometimes the guests will then offer their gift of red envelopes, which are given to a bridesmaid carrying a purse to hold the envelopes.
While couples today will register for gifts, it is traditional to give money as gifts. The money is placed inside a red envelope, specifically for weddings with the appropriate auspicious symbols and sayings on the front. People say the money should be new bills and give in lucky numbers (8, 9, even numbers but not 4). Checks are acceptable also. If you choose to get something off the registry or give a boxed gift, avoid giving clocks (the word for clock sounds like the word for death), picture frames, knives or fans. All of these items are considered unlucky.
As you arrive at a wedding reception, you will be greeted by a few of the couple’s friends whose responsibility it is to get you to sign a red silken signature cloth which acts as a guestbook and to collect any gifts.
Chinese are superstitious people so any opportunity to use auspicious sounds, words or symbols will be taken. Here are some common symbols.
- “Double happiness”: The Chinese character is literally made up of two characters for happiness. Therefore, having it twice means extra happy. The double happiness is rarely used in every day language and reserved mostly for weddings.
- Colors: Red and gold.
- Dragon and Phoenix: These two symbolize the balance between the masculine and feminine, or yin and yang.
- Lucky Numbers: 8 (sounds like the word for fortune), 9 (longevity) and even numbers are mostly good.
- Unlucky Numbers: 4 and odd numbers
You can read more tips about Chinese wedding traditions and how they were incorporated. As the Washington, DC area is quite diverse, we see many different cultural wedding traditions as part of a fusion wedding. Keep these tips in mind if you are planning a wedding and hoping to incorporate your heritage. — Vicky