Chinese weddings are so great! I love the fact that everyone that is important to a couple comes together to celebrate the love that these two people have for each other. It’s a heartwarming reminder of the simple joys of life to see so many family members and friends gathered in the same place for the same purpose.
For that reason, weddings are a great window into understanding a particular culture. In many cases, weddings are held at specific cultural locations; their decorations really matches the background of the couple, whether the two people come from similar or different cultures. They are really able to show off the traditions and customs that make them proudest of their lives thus far, and look forward to the lives that they have ahead of them, together. Every culture has specific traditions that they honor, and those traditions and cultural exchanges manifest themselves the most in events like Chinese weddings.
The difference in wedding customs wasn’t something that I was aware of before I attended my first foreign wedding, in Beijing, China. But when I attended that Chinese wedding, I was blown away by the differences – though in retrospect I shouldn’t have been. I still saw the same affection, but the environment was wholly different from what I am used to. It seemed as if the basics were all there, including the engagement photos, cake, rings, toasting the couple when during the reception. Despite these similarities, I felt like the wedding was a completely different celebration as compared to the weddings I’m used to. These were some of the biggest differences that I noticed.
Note: In this post, I outline the cultural differences that I noticed. Naturally, there are cultural norms that I don’t understand, but that does NOT mean that they are worse because they are “weird”; this simply means that they are different. In cases that I describe as “weird”, I am not judging those practices.
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Clothes to Wear to Chinese Weddings
When I first was invited to this wedding, I was really worried because I hadn’t brought any wedding-appropriate clothes. I could only bring one suitcase to Beijing for free, so I crammed as many business and casual clothes as could fit among my other necessary trinkets. I was really worried and wasn’t sure where to even get a reasonably priced dress.
Luckily, my mom told me that people actually don’t wear very fancy clothes to weddings in China. I put on a semiformal/casual borderline dress and actually blended in really well. I was surprised to see some people dressed in very casual clothes, like they had come from walking around the park, and others in very traditional Chinese clothes.
The Location of Chinese Weddings
At least in cities, most Chinese weddings take place in large hotels. The day I attended this particular wedding was at the tail end of the 10/1 Golden Week, or the week that China celebrates the founding of the Communist Party/communist leadership in the country. Everyone gets seven days of vacation; we saw at least six other weddings in the same large hotel that we were going to. All of the wedding is held in a single auditorium decorated for this occasion. The larger the hotel, the better. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the wedding venue itself – the room in which the ceremony is being held – is very big, just that the hotel is very big.
While we may question how romantic a hotel can be, hotels are actually a great symbol of wealth in China. When most Chinese people travel, they only stay in 5-star hotels (that’s where you will meet all those Chinese tour groups you see). If they want to have a really great meal on a weekend, they will often choose a restaurant attached to a hotel. Most large hotels have three or four restaurants, and many of them serve world-class food. In Beijing, I have been brought to hotel restaurants for several occasions; they just seem to hold a sort of prestige that hotels in the US don’t have.
As in any culture, colors and decorations play a huge part in celebrations, especially weddings. At a typical American wedding, you see tons of flowers and white. Anything that isn’t white is a “wedding” color. There is typically a white wedding arch, white flowers, and confetti. The tradition for Chinese weddings dictates that red is the color of luck and prosperity; most of the decorations were red, including the tablecloths and chair covers and the walkway.
In contrary to the American white symbolizing purity, white outside the wedding dress and silverware is typically the color of funerals. As a result, no decorations at Chinese weddings are white; instead, they are red, representing luck and fortune, or a bright color that complements the red. At this wedding, the flowers were a sky blue, as were the chair ribbons. The rings (which were not brought down the aisle by a cute little ring bearer) were held in a heart-shaped box that was made of pink ribbons.
As if that wasn’t strange enough to me, there were no windows to the outside from the room that we were in. Even though the wedding took place in the late morning, it looked like the dead of night. That, combined with all the red, made for a very different vibe to the wedding throughout.
To get an understanding of the music scene in China is a difficult task for Americans. While we are sometimes exposed to music of different countries, we have a ton of American-based music that keeps us plenty occupied when we want to listen to some of our favorite tunes. Most international artists are unknown to us (with the exception of a few, such as K-Pop stars), and those artists that “break in” to the American music scene are already wildly successful. To the contrary, American music is exported wherever the artist wants. This is the case all over the world – Justin Beiber, anyone? – including China.
For this reason, I guess I should have expected that the music that was played was in English. I didn’t recognize the song, but it seemed like a nice voice singing about love and companionship and everything that a healthy relationship should be. However, I wondered how much a typical Chinese person would understand. I was puzzled – why play music that at least half your guests can’t understand?
Furthermore, the playlist consisted of about 4 songs. Since there was no dance party (I’ll get to that later), the loop was played over before the ceremony as the guests were trickling in. I would have loved to hear some more variety!
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Walking Down the Aisle at Chinese Weddings
The image of the bride in her white dress walking down the aisle of a wedding venue is iconic! Everyone stands on her two sides, classical music in the air, but that’s not what happened. There was no father walking his daughter down the aisle or groom excitedly waiting for his new bride at the front either. You could imagine my surprise when this did not happen at this wedding.
Instead, the groom walked the bride down the “aisle”, or the empty space between the lunch tables that were spread throughout the room. The couple walked from one side of the room around the back and down the middle, onto the platform that was laid out for them. The maid of honor helped get the bride’s dress smoothly down the path, and the best man walked behind the groom. No parents involved.
Role of the Parents
Instead, the parents are sitting at their table already, in the front. They actually sit quite peacefully there, with no speeches or toasts. The one role that they do have during the ceremony is part of a special Chinese tradition of serving tea. In this instance, the two sets of parents were introduced. Then, the wedding officiant poured two cups of tea and handed them to the groom, who gave one to each of his new parents-in-law. Before he handed each one a cup, he said, “Dad/Mom, this cup of tea is for you.” After he did that, the bride did the same thing for her new parents-in-law.
The Nuance of Family
While this may seem trivial to someone who doesn’t understand Chinese culture, this is actually a big moment. To give you some background, the Chinese language is actually extremely nuanced when it comes to family. For example, my father has three siblings; each of them are called something different (da gugu – older of my dad’s younger sisters, xiao gugu – younger of my dad’s younger sisters, and shushu – my dad’s little brother), and none of these titles contains their actual name, opposite from the way I would say “Aunt Ellen” or “Uncle Wilson” if I spoke to them in English. My cousins call my dad different names, depending on their position in our family tree. What I call my family member tells you exactly what their relation is to me, as opposed to a generic “Uncle Phil”.
I know what you’re thinking: what? Also, I didn’t sign up for a Chinese lesson. So, my point is that family and position in the family is extremely important to Chinese culture and language, and calling your parents-in-law the same titles that you would call your biological parents is A Big Deal.
Role of Close Friends
As for friends, most of them are just normal guests. There isn’t a wedding party as in American weddings, but the couple each picks one person to walk down the aisle behind them. Because no Chinese person of marriage age is legally allowed to have a sibling (the One Child Policy has been in place since the late 1970s), they may pick a cousin if they have one or one close friend.
The wedding is hosted by an officiant, who can also be a friend.
As I mentioned before, the reception is held in the same room as the ceremony. This is actually really great because there’s no rushing. You simply sit at dining facility after the ceremony and wait for the food to arrive. When I arrived super early, I was pleased to see that the table already had small snacks. Throughout the ceremony, servers added more and more dishes onto the Lazy Susan.
Another wedding tradition is to basically provide as much food as you afford. I’m not sure why this practice is still done despite the rapidly rising standard of living in Chinese cities; it comes out of a special importance that the Chinese place on food and being able to feed guests. The purpose of overflowing the table with dishes is to show that you are able to provide extravagantly for all the attendants of your wedding, even though you know they can’t possibly finish even half of the food that you provide.
On the plus side, you can be very picky about what you eat as a guest. I don’t like spicy food or seafood, so I was able to choose to avoid those foods without seeming too much like a diva. It’s also accepted and encouraged to bring some of the food home; if you ask the servers, they will bring you these awesome containers that are reusable and microwaveable. It’s really a win-win.
If you’re over drinking age, this is probably a major reason that you attend weddings. Open bar? Free? Is there anything better?
In Chinese weddings, they of course also have free, unlimited alcohol, but it’s not set up in the same way. Because there typically is no bar area, the servers set bottles of wine at the center of the table. You are free to pour as many glasses as you’d like. There is no beer or other alcohol, so you would be out of luck if you prefer something else. About halfway through lunch, though, the servers brought out a Chinese liquor that was surprisingly strong.
For the most part, people don’t try to get too drunk because wedding receptions are not always held at night, but you just never know.
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No Dancing at Chinese Weddings
I love the dancing at weddings because the first dance is a really special moment for the newly married couple. Unfortunately, there was no dancing at this wedding. Since most Chinese weddings are held in hotel meeting rooms or auditoriums; they are too small for a dance stage. Instead, the guests are stuffing their faces of fancy food. The bride changed from her white wedding dress to a red traditional Chinese gown. Then, she and the groom made rounds to visit all their guests at their tables and drink a toast to their future.
Gifts at Chinese Weddings
For all kinds of gift-giving situations, Americans seem to have an aversion to giving money. Instead, we try to guess what the receiver(s) want or put the cash they would prefer onto a gift card. (Those could add to the $41 billion in unused gift cards from 2005-2011, according to NPR). For weddings, couples often have a registry, but the Chinese have really figured out how gifts should actually work.
The Chinese way actually saves everybody time and worry. The wedding-planning couple doesn’t have to take time to put together a wedding registry. Attendees don’t have to scroll through the registry trying to find something that might fit their budget. Chinese people just put some cash into a red envelope and hand it over! When they arrive, they sign the wedding book upon arrival and enjoy the feast.
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Have you ever been to Chinese weddings or those of people from a different culture? What surprised you the most about it?