Mainland Moments: Lifting the veil

Karen Tye looks at the big differences between East and West when it comes to tying the knot in China.

I love weddings. And having lived in China for the past eight years, I have had the honour of attending many of the weddings of my Chinese friends. 

The difference between Chinese and Western cultures peaks when it comes to this social custom but today I hope to “lift the veil” on Chinese weddings by offering a few tips to my western readers.
 
The legalities
 
Chinese couples will head down to the local bureau of civil affairs (民政局) to register their marriage, which often occurs several months in advance of the wedding reception, as opposed to most Aussie couples, who officially tie the knot and hold a wedding celebration of some sort all on the same day.
 
According to Silvia Yu, a newlywed who has lived in Shanghai for 10 years, the wedding reception is traditionally more important than marriage registration, especially in the eyes of the couple’s parents and relatives.
 
This registration aspect of Chinese marriages has stuck in my mind ever since I overheard a colleague requesting a longer lunch break for the day because he was planning to meet up with his girlfriend and get hitched legally!
 
Nevertheless, fortuitous dates are of the utmost importance to almost every Chinese person and the couple will select a “lucky” day to get married.
 
Ms Yu and her husband registered their wedding on January 4, 2013, because when that date – 1314 – is pronounced in Mandarin, it becomes a phonetic pun meaning forever and ever.
 
“On that day, hundreds of couples queued to register their marriage. My husband and I queued for five hours,” says Ms Yu.
 
A world record for the most number of marriages was set on August 8, 2008, which was also the same day the Olympic Games were opened in Beijing. The number eight symbolizes luck and wealth in China and at least 314,224 couples across China were wedded on that day. Wedding registrations also soared through the roof in China on September 9, 1999 as the number nine in Chinese has the same sound as the character for long lasting.karen_tye_weddings_in_china_istock_000016537128_medium_web
 
According to Ms Yu, because break ups can be commonplace among young couples, Chinese people register their marriage months in advance of their reception to give both parties peace of mind that the “deal is done”.

*Pictured right: Weddings are a big business in China – often with a western-style wedding combined with a second local Chinese wedding in the couple’s home town. (iStock)

The reception
 
Since Chinese parents of newlyweds view the reception as the most important part, usually no expense is spared.
 
Months ahead of the reception, Chinese couples will hire a professional photographer to take wedding photos of the couple. Prices of bridal photography packages range from RMB 2,000 up to the tens of thousands. On average, a bridal photography package sets a couple back around RMB 3,500. Photos are taken in advance so as to ensure they are displayed at the reception and in the home of newlyweds.
 
The reception can either be a lunch or dinner affair and it is usually centered around the meal. As it is traditionally important to make guests feel as welcomed and comfortable as possible, a variety of food, drinks as well as cigarettes are placed on each table.
 
Western traditions have also trickled into Chinese weddings such as exchanging vows and rings, kissing, and cutting and serving of a wedding cake, according to Yu.
 
However, this depends on the individual couple. Ms Yu says a former classmate had a traditional Chinese wedding, where the reception was decked in red candles, lanterns and shuangxi (喜喜) banners.
 
The other differences I’ve noticed about Chinese wedding receptions is that while the MC of an Aussie wedding is usually a close friend of the bride or groom which provides a sense of intimacy, Chinese wedding MCs are hired and often come as part of the wedding planning company’s package. To me, I get a sense that guests are almost part of a variety show at Chinese weddings, with a professional MC, karaoke and even games to encourage interaction, yet, strangely, of all the Chinese weddings I’ve been to, no one has stayed on to party the night away, despite all the elaborate entertainment.
 
The red packet
 
In terms of gifts, it’s all about household items and wedding registries in Australia but guests at Chinese weddings only ever give newlyweds red packets with money in them. The idea behind the red packet is so that Chinese newlyweds do not start off their new lives together in debt – in the eyes of Chinese people, weddings are supposed to be profit-making.
 
So the all-important question is: How much should a guest put into a red packet?
 
I’ve gotten a lot of nebulous answers from my Chinese friends when I’ve asked them, and the answer is usually: “If you’re good friends, give more, if you’re not so close, you can give less.”
 
But that’s no help when it comes to a ballpark figure. The only way is to take into account wedding expenses and work out how much your invitation actually cost the married couple. On average, a table of 10 will cost between RMB 2,000 to 4,000 depending on the quality of food served and on the restaurant in Shanghai. There are also tables that cost over RMB 4,000.
 
“The cost of a wedding in Shanghai is higher than in other cities. Restaurants are very expensive,” says Ms Yu.
 
“My wedding in Shanghai cost RMB 3,000 a table (of 10), which excluded wine and beverages. But in my hometown in Zhejiang Province, my wedding reception only cost RMB 1,500 a table and there was a better selection of food,” she says.
 
When giving your red packet, make sure you have signed your name on the back of the packet with a small congratulatory remark – Chinese people keep track of how much every guest has given as they have to return at least that amount when they are invited back to the weddings of their friends.
 
Also take into account the numbers of the amount of money that you give. I would highly suggest against giving any amount with the number four in it, as the number four in Mandarin has a similar pronunciation to the word death.
 
Other important tips
 
The first time my husband and I attended a friend’s wedding in China, we made quite a huge faux pas, in that we overdressed for the occasion. It goes without saying in Australia that wedding guests need to don cocktail outfits to look smart for the photos – a gorgeous frock and heels for girls and a suit or at minimum, a collared shirt, for boys. As for colors, perhaps white and black are taboo for women. We turned up to the wedding dressed to the nines, which was held in the couple’s hometown of Qingdao, I was in the highest of heels and wore a long red skirt, the same colour the bride wore as red symbolizes luck in Chinese culture – yet another awkward moment. Our jaws dropped when we saw many guests in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. A friend told me that at Chinese weddings, guests should never out-dress (or even come close to it) the bride and groom.

Bear in mind that not every Chinese bride will wear a white wedding gown, some will just opt for an evening dress. Thankfully, my husband and I were seated at the token laowai table, where the men took off their suit jackets immediately and pulled uncomfortably at their ties and the women sank into their heels and hunched when taking photos with the couple to appear shorter!

Chinese people will often invite their bosses and managers to their weddings, even if the relationship is strictly just a work one.
“At my wedding reception in my hometown, 240 people were invited. My relatives, my parents’ colleagues, my parents’ old classmates, friends and my former teachers and some of my old classmates who work in my hometown were all invited,” says Ms Yu.
 
As a boss or manager, you might be even called upon to give a speech. Attending the wedding and giving a speech will give your colleague plenty of face or 面子 among the rest of the wedding guests. If you do give a speech, now is not the time to bring out a repertoire of jokes that are generally well received at Australian weddings (and certainly not the roasting that best men are supposed to give to a groom) although one or two innocuous, perhaps self-deprecating jokes can lighten the mood. If you don’t speak Chinese fluently, consider having a Chinese speech prepared to read out (have it edited by a Chinese friend first) or speaking in English will also be fine if you don’t think you will be understood in Chinese – make sure you speak clearly in either language and keep it short and simple.
As for the content, do not be sparing in praises for your colleague and their work ethic as you are there to attest that they are a valuable and upstanding member of the community. 

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