During your time as an expat in China, the chances are you’ll be invited to a wedding of a friend or colleague. If so, you’re in for a treat. Chinese weddings are a lot of fun. However, the prospect of attending such an important event can be a little daunting. You’ll be wondering what to wear, what to take, and how to behave. No worries – our special wedding FAQ will help put your mind at ease.
What can I expect?
Unlike nuptials in other parts of the world, guests at a wedding in China don’t usually attend the actual ceremony. This is conducted in private, with just the family of the bride and groom in attendance. So when you receive the invitation, it will just be to the banquet. When you arrive, the happy couple will already be man and wife, after various rituals stretching back months. An auspicious day will have been chosen, and gifts will have been exchanged between the families of the bride and groom. Depending on how traditional the couple is, these gifts can be linen, home goods, or money in red envelopes (hóng bāo). Red is the colour of weddings in China, so you’ll be seeing a lot of it, along with the character囍, meaning “double happiness”. The symbol is made up of two 喜(x? - happiness) characters side by side, and is also known as shuāng x? - twin joy.
What shall I wear?
Since the bride will be wearing red for at least one of her wedding outfits, it’s best to avoid this colour yourself. Likewise, white is best left alone, as it’s the colour of mourning in China. Since weddings are a jolly affair, it’s a good idea to choose something bright with several colours, but not too gaudy. For the ladies, think modest cocktail party attire; for the gents, a smart suit, or shirt, trousers and blazer, but definitely no tuxedo/morning suit.
What shall I take?
Red envelopes! Giving physical gifts isn’t done in China, unlike the West where lavish wedding lists are de rigueur. This makes things easier, but deciding how much to give can be a thorny issue. Too much will smack of over-generosity, and embarrass the couple. Too little, and they’ll think you’re stingy. Of course, you can play the laowai card, but it’s best to come up with an amount that is fitting. A ballpark figure is 1000 RMB for a close friend, and 500 to 800 for an acquaintance or colleague. If you really want to take a gift as well as a hóng bāo, by all means do it – no-one will be offended. In fact, a special wedding present from your home country would be a thoughtful and welcome gesture. However, don’t give a fan – this is incredibly unlucky, as the Mandarin word for fan sounds like the word for “disperse”, and who wants their luck to disperse on their wedding day? Also, on the subject of no-no’s, some traditional families may not be happy with pregnant women at the wedding, nor people who have recently suffered a death in the family. The best thing to do if this applies to you is to check with the bride or groom.
What sort of food will there be?
Chinese wedding feasts typically take place in hotel banquet halls. Guests can number into the hundreds, making for a very rowdy affair. After the master of ceremonies has made his welcoming speech, the bride and groom will cut the cake, and the banquet will begin. Traditionally, eight courses will be served, since eight is the luckiest number. Each course has a symbolic meaning. Suckling pig stands for virginity, while fish means plenty, as the sound of the Mandarin word is similar to the word for increase. The lobster course is lucky because the shell of the crustacean is red; pigeon signifies peace, and shark fin soup implies wealth. There will usually be plates of cold cuts and small snacks including chicken feet, based on the phoenix and the dragon which stand for yin and yang. If sea cucumbers are served, it is because their name in Chinese (h?i shēn) sounds like good heart (h?o xīn). Dessert will be sweet red bean cakes or buns. It is customary for doggie bags to be passed around after the meal so guests can take home leftovers. Participate in this even if you don’t want any food; if you don’t, people will think you didn’t like the food, or are spurning your hosts’ generosity.
What happens next?
The most entertaining part of a Chinese wedding is arguably what comes after dinner – the games. These often get quite risqué, as the aim is to embarrass the couple, and break any taboos that might remain between them before their wedding night. Popular games include popping balloons between bodies, tying cherries to the bride in certain places and making the groom bite them off, and having the bride identify the groom by feeling the rear ends of a row of men. Another well-loved jape is for the groom to knock at the bride’s door (a door in the banquet hall) and be questioned by her family as to how good a husband he will be. Three of these games are played, but there may be more if the bride and groom (or guests) are particularly boisterous. By the end, there will be red faces all around, and plenty of laughter.
So that just about sums up what you can expect at a Chinese wedding. As with every cultural experience, the best thing to do is observe, get involved, and enjoy!
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