Traditional Han Chinese Marriage Customs

By staff reporter ZHANG LI

MARRIAGE is important to everyone. To the average family, marriage means producing children so that its traditions can be passed down to the next generation. A grand and joyful wedding is an essential symbol of marriage, as from that moment on, a man and woman have promised to love each other and cleave together forever. Various customs within a wedding signify blessings for the couple’s married life.

In modern society, people choose their own spouses. Men and women get to know each other, fall in love and get married. They’ve abandoned the traditions that have no practical meaning in contemporary society. But it’s good for young people to know some of the old practices, so that society remains aware of its cultural treasures.

China boasts a long history and rich culture. The traditional marriage customs of the Han Chinese are just one part of Chinese culture, and reflect the Hans’ understanding of marriage – which is not only that a couple live together, but that their union forms a societal bond between two families.

In ancient China, marriage happened through “the parents’ order and the matchmaker’s word.” Men and women entered marriage without knowing each other. Two families of equal social status often married their children to each other. The man and woman got to know each other through their matchmaker’s intercession. To guarantee a smooth road toward the wedding, various rituals were conducted.

In 2008, the marriage customs of Xiaoyi City’s Jiajiazhuang Village in Shanxi Province, the Ten-mile Red Dowry of Ninghai County in Zhejiang Province, and Wedding-on-the-Water of Doumen Town in Guangdong Province were listed as national intangible cultural heritages.


The bride and groom kowtow to heaven and earth at their wedding ceremony on March 9, 2014 in Rizhao City of Shandong Province.  


Six Etiquettes

Han Chinese weddings involve six stages, called the Six Etiquettes. They start off with a marriage proposal (Na Cai), followed by an inquiry into the bride’s birthplace and other personal information (Wen Ming) and divination (Na Ji). Acceptance of the bridal gifts is next (Na Zheng), then choosing the wedding day (Qing Qi), and finally the wedding ceremony (Qin Ying).

Na Cai denotes the man’s family’s sending of a matchmaker to the woman’s family to initiate a marriage proposal. After her family accepts the overture, his family prepares gifts for a formal proposal – a tradition that has been preserved till present times. Nowadays, once a man and woman fall in love, he normally goes to her family to ask for her hand in marriage.

In some rural areas, the tradition of having a matchmaker has been preserved. The matchmaker takes the man to the woman’s home, where they have tea and chat. If he is interested in the woman, he will drink the tea that is offered. If the woman also likes the man, her parents will invite him to stay for dinner. If neither is interested in the other, the two will simply say goodbye to avoid any embarrassment.

If the two families don’t object to the proposal, the man’s family will instruct the matchmaker to ask for the woman’s name and birthdate. In ancient China, close relatives of the same surname were forbidden to marry because those who shared the same family name had common ancestry, which precluded their wedded union.

The couple’s birthdates are needed for fortunetelling, to see if they are compatible and to predict their shared future. This step is called Na Ji.

If the fortunetelling results are good, the man’s family presents the woman’s family with gifts in honor of the betrothal. There are no specific rules on what the gifts should be or their quantity. They vary according to the customs of different regions, as well as the economic conditions of the families involved.

According to Chinese tradition, once a man marries a woman, she becomes a member of his family; the betrothal gifts, or “bride price,” represent an economic compensation to her family to express appreciation for their efforts in raising her. The value of the betrothal gifts reflects the financial standing of the man’s family, and the status that the woman enjoys when she becomes part of his family. Once her family accepts the gifts, the couple becomes officially engaged.

Qing Qi is when the man’s family picks a wedding date and asks for the approval of the woman’s family. Qin Ying is when the groom fetches and welcomes the bride to his home on their wedding day. According to folk custom, the woman becomes formally married to the man after he fetches her and welcomes her to his family. Without the completion of this step, their marriage would not be accepted by the public.

In modern society, the marriage law stipulates that a man and woman legally become a couple once they register and get a marriage license from the Department of Civil Affairs. But in some places, the tradition has been kept that the two only become married once their wedding has been officiated.

Marriage Customs in Jiajiazhuang, Xiaoyi City, Shanxi

The marriage customs in Jiajiazhuang Village of Xiaoyi City, Shanxi Province, which is based on the Six Etiquettes, feature detailed steps and a festive atmosphere. They are the typical marriage practices of the Han Chinese in the Yellow River Basin. The practices include various aspects of local life, such as music, dance, literature, crafts, and religion, representing an important part of local people’s cultural life.

The day before the wedding, the woman’s family makes mantou, or steamed bread, in various shapes, such as that of a gourd, and decorate it with auspicious symbols. The woman takes the bread to the man’s family on her wedding day to signify a happy married life.

For her journey to the man’s house, the bride wears a red robe and coat, tied at the waist with a meter-long red woolen yarn. The woolen yarn, called the “long-life string,” has to be hidden inside her robe.

When the groom goes to fetch his bride, he brings red eggs, cotton thread and desserts. The red eggs and thread are used to remove unwanted hair on the bride’s face, signifying the girl becoming a woman. The groom and bride kowtow and say goodbye to her parents, who pin red and green ribbons on the groom to celebrate the wedding with colorful decorations. The groom is then allowed to take his bride home.

When the wedding procession reaches the groom’s home, the members of his family welcome the bride by setting off firecrackers, scattering flower petals and playing music.

There are also customs on decorating the bridal chamber. The door and window are adorned with double happiness symbols. Walnuts and red dates are placed everywhere in the room, symbolizing many children for the newlyweds. The groom and bride offer each other water with brown sugar, which they both drink, connoting a sweet married life.

Next, the groom and bride kowtow to Heaven, Earth, and their parents. They then become a couple. After the ceremony, the man and woman toast relatives and friends attending the event and express their wedding wishes, such as remaining a devoted couple throughout their lives.

There is a quirky custom in Xiaoyi worth noting: the groom’s parents wear comical facial decorations and costumes. Local people think that the weirder and sillier their getup, the happier the wedding will be.

“Teasing the bride and the bridegroom on wedding night” (Nao Dongfang) is the highlight of the day. The participating guests are normally the couple’s friends and other young people. They gather at the bridal room to banter with the couple and play pranks on the newlyweds, who will act out all their embarrassing suggestions.

People consider Nao Dongfang an interesting part of the wedding celebration, because it drives out evil spirits and blesses the couple with a happy and prosperous marriage. But it’s not considered a tradition in good taste since it often involves dirty jokes. With social development, the practice has been improved to be funnier but less embarrassing.

The day after the wedding, the newlyweds pay a visit to the woman’s family, carrying gifts, and stay for lunch. In the afternoon, they return to the man’s home. On the fifth day after the wedding, they again visit her home. That day, her parents give their daughter a huoshao (flat cake) plus jiaozi, a wish for the couple to have a baby boy the following year. One month after their wedding, the couple visits the woman’s family again.

The groom visits his bride’s home to thank the woman’s parents for their efforts in raising their daughter, and to take the opportunity to get to know her relatives and friends. She, on the other hand, visits to show her parents that she will never forget their love for her.

As time has gone by, the marriage rituals in Xiaoyi have gradually been simplified, and some steps have been abandoned. Nowadays people just wish the newlyweds a happy, harmonious and prosperous married life through entertaining activities.

Wedding-on-the-Water in Doumen Town, Guangdong

The Doumen District of Zhuhai City, Guangdong Province, sits at the southwestern end of the Pearl River Delta. It is known as the hometown of many overseas Chinese, as well as a beautiful waterside town. For centures, generations of people have lived here and created unique marriage customs – including celebrating weddings on the water.

The custom, which originated in the tradition of searching for potential life partners by singing antiphonally to each other, dates back to the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. Integrating the Hakka and Guangfu cultures, the latter of which is considered Cantonese culture, the wedding process is complicated, with many stages and special practices.

In the past, marriages happened through the orders of parents and the introduction of matchmakers. Today, people in the area choose their life partners by singing antiphonally to each other. After the man and woman fall in love, their families discuss the wedding details, set a date and start to prepare for the event. On the eve of the wedding, a ceremony to pay respect to the man’s ancestors is held in his home. After the ceremony, the groom puts a mat given by his brother on the matrimonial bed, signifying lasting brotherly affection. The groom also opens presents and “red envelopes” containing money, given by relatives, and then offers tea or makes a toast of appreciation to family members. Finally, all his relatives sit together and celebrate with traditional songs.

In the bride’s home, a ceremony is simultaneously held, where her sisters and friends sing to honor her ancestors and family members. It’s also a ritual of saying goodbye to the bride-to-be, who will soon move to her husband’s home.

On the morning of the wedding day, the groom hires a boat to fetch his bride. The boat should go directly to the woman’s home. When it arrives, the bride’s family sends a signal by striking a gong. The bride is carried on the back of an older sister-in-law to the boat, where the groom’s family members welcome her. During the wedding ceremony, the bride offers tea to the older generation of guests and answers their questions in song. The third day after the wedding, the couple goes back to visit the bride’s parents, which marks the completion of the wedding ritual.

Wedding-on-the-Water is a folk custom and part of Doumen’s local culture. The singing of folk songs is essential to the whole wedding process, since the music reflects the residents’ best wishes for the couple’s married life, their respect and filial piety for the older generation, as well as harmony among neighbors. With its unique cultural charm, the practice spread to other waterside areas, such as Zhongshan City, Jiangmen City and Foshan City in the Pearl River Delta, and soon became popular in those regions.

Ten-mile Red Dowry in Ninghai County, Zhejiang

The name Ten-mile Red Dowry is associated with a grand wedding scene in the olden days in Ninghai County of Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province.

According to local tradition, the day before the wedding, the woman’s family hired bearers to carry her dowry to the groom’s home. Some rich households received bridal money from the groom’s family, and since they didn’t want others to think they were “selling” their daughters, spent a fortune on procuring the furniture that the newlyweds would need. The woman’s parents expected their daughter to gain high social status and enjoy respect in her husband’s family, and at the same time wanted to show off their wealth to the groom’s family and the public. Furniture such as a bed and articles like a spindle had to be delivered to the groom’s home the day before the wedding. Other small items, such as bedding, jewelry and needlework implements, were delivered on the wedding day with the dowry procession.

Since the dowry procession could stretch for miles, it was exaggeratedly called a “ten-mile red dowry.” From afar, the procession that featured the colors red and yellow resembled a golden dragon in a red grown, creating a festive atmosphere. Red is considered a lucky color, so it featured largely in the dowry. The articles included in the dowry were mainly divided into three categories: furniture, small wooden articles for daily use, and needlework implements. There would also have been a canopy bed, cabinet, clothing rack, table, and armchairs – all in elaborately carved wood.

Gold-painted lacquer and cinnabar and gold-lacquered woodcarvings are traditional handicrafts in Ningbo, and are expected features of furniture decoration. The process of making those items is labor-intensive, involving carving, painting, ornament pasting and gilding. The products made with those techniques embody classic beauty and elegant taste.

The Ten-mile Red Dowry is a cultural relic of traditional Chinese marriage customs in the southern part of the Yangtze River’s lower reaches. In today’s Ninghai, we can still see brides being carried on a bridal sedan on their wedding day, a glimpse of the local culture’s unique past.