There are lots of wedding rituals across China, but in this article, we’ve collected the most significant rites of a traditional Chinese wedding and the experience of real brides.
Incorporating Chinese wedding traditions into your best day is a great way to pay respect to your (or your husband-to-be) Chinese family and heritage. Not to mention that it’s a very special experience to see yourself in a traditional Chinese dress or take part in an authentic Chinese tea ceremony.
With these ideas, you will make your multicultural wedding undoubtedly impressive, grandiose & colored in the most joyful hues according to Chinese traditions 🙂
Table of Contents
Chinese Pre-Wedding Traditions
If we talk about traditional Chinese weddings, we have to consider two major customs, both highly traditional and important:
- the concept of three letters and six etiquettes, and
- tea ceremonies.
According to the 44th chapter of the Book of Rites in the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 8 AD), an essential collection of ritual systems in ancient China, a legal marriage consists of six rites — the Three Letters & The Six Etiquettes or Sān shū liù lǐ.
The 3 letters consisted of the following:
- formal proposal Nà cǎ,
- birthday matching Wèn míng,
- confirmation of the compatibility Naji,
- exchange of wedding gifts Nà zhēng,
- choosing a ceremony date Qǐng qī, and finally
- wedding ceremony itself Qin ying.
As you see, in Chinese traditions wedding festivities are very ritualized and old in origin, but many of these rites are still widely regarded and used today. However, these six steps have been vastly simplified under Western influences. Further, we will talk about these 6 wedding procedures according to our modern time.
Chinese proposal tradition
Though this ritual is not popular today, in the past it was very common. Firstly, a matchmaker acted as a mediator between two families. On behalf of the groom’s family, he initiated a proposal by visiting the bride’s family and if the bridal family agreed he requested the date and hour of the girl’s birth. The dates of both future bride & groom were important to know as astrologically they have to match each other.
If both families approved the horoscopes of the bride & groom, they arranged to meet to an official proposal Tíqīn. Usually, the groom’s family met the bride’s parents where the groom had to ask formally for the bride’s hand. During this visit, both families evaluated each other in terms of appearance, education, character, and social position. If all agreed they proceed to the betrothal.
Nowadays, if some couples wish to include this ritual into their wedding, they just seek an auspicious date to pay the bride’s parents a visit. The groom and his parents bring gifts (bottles of hard liquor, cakes, or fruits), meet the bride’s parents, and ask for the bride’s hand. In the eyes of the modern generation, this ritual may look outdated, but some Chinese brides find it sweet and romantic when the groom seeks the approval and permission of the bride’s parents.
Chinese betrothal ceremony
In the traditional Chinese betrothal ceremony the Guo Da Li, the parents have to meet each other to exchange gifts. The idea of exchange was to help the newlyweds to start a new life and to show respect for each other.
The boy’s family presented betrothal gifts Pìnlǐ such as money and significant treats including tea, poultry, and bridal cakes. The girl’s family reciprocated with gifts of food and clothing — bride’s dowry Jia Zhuang. Sometimes the bride presented her dowry separately a few days before the wedding ceremony. Chinese dowries typically included bedding, new clothing for the bride, tea sets, baby items, and gold jewelry. Once the families exchanged the gifts, the Guo Da Li ceremony was complete and the couple is now officially engaged.
Nowadays, you can find many Chinese wedding sets with a bridal dowry to buy but some of them are miniatures of real gifts just to display good meaning and symbolize future prosperity.
Choosing a wedding date & sending invitations
After the families exchanged the betrothal gifts, they select a special date for the wedding. It’s very important to choose an appropriate date according to the Chinese calendar and based on newlyweds’ horoscopes. The choosing of the wedding date was in the past one of the most important parts of wedding planning. Until now, certain dates are unlucky and should be avoided.
When the wedding date is announced, the families start to send invitations, usually about a month prior to the wedding date. For the relatives & friends, it can be about one or two weeks before the wedding day.
Traditional Chinese wedding invitations are red and placed in red envelopes called Hóngbāo. The red color symbolizes good luck and prosperity in Chinese and other East Asian cultures. The wording is also gold or red, and if in Chinese, you have to placу it vertically. It also contains the Chinese calendar wedding date, as well as the birthdates of the bride and groom and their parents, then the name of the venue, and times for dinner and cocktails. Nowadays, sending email invitations is totally ok as well.
The Chinese bed setting ceremony
The date for the An Chuang ceremony also called the bed setting ceremony, was in the past also chosen according to the Chinese calendar. In modern times, the ritual takes place any time between three days to a week before the wedding.
At this ceremony, the couple, the parents of them and also other family members can take part. Some of them cover a matrimonial bed with a new set of bed linen in an auspicious color (for example, red) and decorate it with the small souvenir gifts presented during the betrothal ceremony. They also light a pair of bedside lamps which will be on for three days after the ritual.
After the bed and room are ready, the couple and their family recite the traditional wishes of a blissful marriage and eternal life together.
After the An Chuang ritual, no one except for the couple should enter the bedroom until the wedding day. Otherwise, it will mean a third party in their marriage. Nobody could sleep or sit on the bed. Only on the wedding day, the family can invite a child to jump on the matrimonial bed to bless the couple with lots of children.
The Chinese hair combing ceremony
This is a traditional wedding Chinese rite called Hair Combing Ritual Shang Tou when the parents comb their children’s hair. It symbolizes the next step in their lives from childhood to adulthood. Usually, the family of the bride performs the ritual the night before the wedding.
Traditionally, the bride and groom will shower with pomelo leaves to cleanse off bad spirits and change into new red clothes and slippers. The bride will sit in front of a mirror (or a window), while the groom sits facing the inside of the house. Female family members will prepare a pair of red taper candles and scissors, incense, and a hair comb. After they light candles and the mother of the bride or other respectable woman starts the hair combing ceremony. While she is combing the hair of the bride or groom, she will recite 4 blessings:
The first comb will bring you a long-lasting union,
The second will comb bring you a harmonious union,
The third comb will bring you plenty of descendants,
The fourth comb will bring you well-being and long life.
After she combed the couple’s hair four times, she clips the red yarn with cypress leaves on their hair and the ceremony is officially over.
Modern brides who want to incorporate this beautiful Chinese ritual into their wedding consider this ceremony as a part of a bridal shower. Or they may make it during their getting ready on the wedding day. By this way, it will be a great opportunity to make interesting original shots during bridal preparation.
The Chinese couples wedding album
Nowadays, it’s popular in China to create an elaborate wedding album, often taken at a photography studio. It’s one of the quite modern Chinese wedding traditions that has been spreading since the late 1990s.
In contrast to Western wedding pictures, a typical Chinese wedding album will not contain pictures of the actual ceremony and wedding itself. The album consists of many pictures of the couple taken at various spots with many different outfits. For example, in Singapore, these outfits may include wedding clothing belonging to different cultures, including Arab and Japanese ones. Usually, a couple does not buy but rents these outfits to have a variety of pictures.
Traditional Chinese wedding dress
At a Chinese wedding, as well as at other East Asian weddings like Korean, certain colors and animals symbolize some aspects of life. These aspects show up in the traditional wedding attire of the bride and groom.
Traditional Chinese bridal dress
For your wedding in Chinese style you can choose between several options:
- As red is the color of happiness, it is traditional for Chinese brides to wear a red dress, regionally called either a qipao or cheongsam. This is a popular choice both in China and abroad for Chinese-American brides, or those who are marrying a Chinese partner. This dress usually is embroidered with dragons and phoenixes because dragons represent power and luck, while the phoenix is a sign of femininity, virtue, and grace. As a part of the wedding attire, the dragon represents the groom and the phoenix — the bride. Together they symbolize good luck and harmony in marriage.
- You can choose the Chinese wedding qun kwa (or qun kua what means “long skirt and coat”) if anybody from your family or the family of your husband-to-be originates from Southern China. This traditional dress is from the Guangdong province of Southern China and is often a family heirloom that gets passed down from one generation to the next. Sometimes brides also choose it because the A-Skirt of qun kwa allows more flexibility and comfort than the traditional cheongsam. Qun kwa also comes typically in red, is embellished with gold and silver embroidery, and adorned with the same traditional dragon and phoenix.
- A modern Chinese bride often has two to four dresses as part of her wedding outfits: she can wear a white Western-style wedding dress during the ceremony, a red qipao during the traditional tea ceremony, and a ballgown at the reception.
Groom’s Wedding Attire
The groom’s attire is not as elaborate as the bride’s. If the bride wears a traditional qun kwa, the groom can choose a traditional Tang suit. It typically includes a long sheath paired with a jacket. The Tang is also adorned with dragon embroidery.
Some couples surely want to go a more modern route and in this case, a groom can wear just a Tang jacket — to match with a modern bridal dress. There are many styles of Tang jackets: from more traditional to more modern ones.
If the bride & groom wish to have a mix of traditional Chinese and Western cultures, the groom can choose a decent mandarin collar jacket. It is a stand-up collar that rises just some centimeters up from the neckline. This iconic feature is very popular in bride and groom outfits at Chinese weddings.
What to wear if you invited to a traditional Chinese wedding
The guests at a Chinese wedding won’t wear red because it’s the privilege of the couple.
Also, white and black are not for the wedding. These colors are often worn at Chinese funerals and signify death and mourning.
The best colors for a Chinese wedding are warm soft colors like purple, pink, and peach — they all symbolize new life and happiness. Gold tone is also a popular color in Chinese culture. All these hues consider bringing good luck to the newlyweds so they are totally acceptable.
About the exact dress code, it’s better to check with the couple because Chinese weddings as well as Western ones can be less or more formal.
Traditional Chinese Wedding Day
An old Chinese wedding tradition — when the groom leads a procession from his house to the house of his future wife, while he lights firecrackers, and strikes gongs to ward off evil spirits and attendees carry banners and lanterns — this tradition is now outdated. Still, some couples, wishing to incorporate a procession into their wedding, decorate their car with red streamers and flowers, pick up some friends and drive over to the house of the bride.
When the procession arrives at the bride’s home, the bridal party traditionally refuses the groom to see the bride until he takes part in “door games” and gives to the bridal party enough red envelopes, full of money. These Chinese door games, known as chuangmen, originate from the idea that a bride is a prized daughter, worth so much that her family refuses to marry her off easily.
Traditional Chinese wedding ceremonies in comparison to Western ones are typically small and very formal. The official registration is performed at a courthouse or government office, with few people in attendance. Traditionally, the marriage ceremony is followed by a prayer. Many couples, even Western, have only a courthouse marriage and skip the public ceremony in favor of a reception. The Chinese reception and tea ceremony are the real highlights of Chinese wedding celebrations.
Chinese Tea Ceremony
This very important Chinese wedding tradition was and still remains the most popular ritual which modern Chinese couples include in their wedding events. The tea ceremony Jing cha is the ritual when the bride will be formally introduced to everyone and accepted into the family.
In the past, on the morning of her wedding day, a Chinese bride served tea to her parents at her home before the groom arrived. She did it to show respect and to thank her parents for raising her. After the wedding ceremony, the newlyweds together served tea at the groom’s house inviting the groom’s elders to drink it. In return, the groom’s family acknowledged the bride’s place in the family and blessed the couple’s union. Lastly, the bride and groom returned to the bridal home together for one more tea ceremony to pay respects to her family.
The tea ceremony is a complex of rituals and rules including the kind of tea which is served and the place where the parents will sit. To incorporate it into your celebration, ask your experienced Chinese relatives to guide you. Also, think how to incorporate it into your wedding timeline. Traditionally, the tea ceremony takes place following the wedding ceremony. You can also organize it during the cocktail hour before the reception starts. Some couples wait to host the tea ceremony until the day after the wedding.
Chinese Wedding Gift Traditions
If you are invited to a Chinese wedding, you will be expected to bring a cash gift. The best way to present it
If you are invited to a Chinese wedding, you will be expected to bring a cash gift. The best way to present it in — in a red envelope Hóngbāo. This money should be equivalent to a nice gift that usually a couple gets at a Western wedding. Or at least it should cover the couple’s expenses per person.
There is a table at the entrance of the wedding reception where guests give their red envelopes to attendants and sign their names on a large scroll. The attendants will open the envelope, count the money inside, and record it on a register next to the guests’ names. They make it so that newlyweds know how much each guest gave. In the end, the couple can verify the amount of money they receive with the guest count. Another reason for it is: when unmarried guests eventually get married, the bride and groom will present the same or bigger amount than they got before.
Wedding Reception Banquet
A Chinese wedding banquet is an hours-long, multi-course feast, it also can include fun activities and entertainment. Usually, it takes place at night at the hotel of the couple’s choice.
In Chinese wedding traditions who pays for the banquet and most of the wedding expenses are the groom & the groom’s parents. The bride’s parents and relatives act as invited guests. Modern bride and groom can pay for their own tables for inviting their friends and colleagues.
In the beginning, guests will sign in the guestbook, drop their wedding gifts and join other guests at the reception tables.
Nearly all Chinese banquets feature a master of ceremonies who announces the arrival of the bride and groom. Their Grand Entrance will be the first highlight of the wedding. The bride and groom will appear in new outfits, different from the ones they had at the tea ceremony performed before.
At the beginning of the banquet, the groom gives a short welcome speech, and guests are served the first meal course. In its turn, the guests will toast the couple with blessings. While guests enjoy an 8- to 10-course dinner, the couple will often disappear to change their outfits before re-emerging down the aisle.
During the wedding, the guests can perform a special drink toasting called “Yam Seng”. The relatives and wedding parties join the couple on stage for a toasting session singing “xiong dis”, “jie meis” and also “yam seng”, usually three times while the newlyweds are drinking champagne. It will be the first part of Yam Seng. The second part occurs when the couple will make the rounds and greet the guests at their tables. Usually, it happens toward the end of the meal but before dessert is served.
Once dessert is served, the wedding celebration is near to end. Before leaving, guests line up outside in the hall to give the couple last blessings. Each guest may have a nice wedding favor from the couple and a photo taken with them. Sometimes the bride personally offers sweets for every guest.
Traditional Chinese Wedding Food & Drinks
Chinese wedding banquets usually consist of 5–10 courses. Some courses are a traditional part of the feast; other, more recent introductions can be changed or discarded entirely. Common examples for all celebratory dinners are poultry and fish. They are served with heads and tails signifying that all things are wholesome and complete. Vegetarian dishes are taboo because a diet means austerity and falling on hard times.
A typical 10-course banquet starts with a whole suckling pig, crab claw, a soup, abalone, fish, and chicken, and ends with rice, noodles, dessert, and petits fours.
There are 3 mainstays of Chinese wedding food:
- Suckling pig is a must at weddings because it symbolizes the bride’s chastity.
- Chicken is also always on the menu according to the old Chinese saying ‘A banquet without chicken is just dinner’.
- And it usually includes fish as phonetically it sounds like the word ‘surplus’ in the meaning bountiful harvest, profits, and bonuses.
At Chinese weddings, you will also find alcoholic drinks. The bride & groom can take some shots of baijiu, traditional Chinese rice-wine while toasting with the guests. However, the newlyweds may switch to water after a few shots as the baijiu drink is very strong. The men attending the wedding are supposed to take a drink with the groom.
Chinese Post-wedding Traditions
In the past, the newlyweds performed the homecoming tradition San zhao hui men three days after the wedding. The couple visited the bride’s family home, where her family accepted her as a guest. It was not appropriate to visit the bride’s home later than three days, as this symbolized that the groom’s family was not happy with the bride and wasn’t allowing her to go home.
In modern days, Chinese weddings usually squeeze all the necessary events into a single day. After the tea ceremony at the groom’s family home, nowadays the couple returns to the bride’s home for the ‘Hui Men’ ceremony with gifts or food.
What you can make if you want to incorporate Chinese wedding traditions into your event
If you like to incorporate some traditional Chinese aspects to your wedding you can try with small things like:
- National decor: it always gives a nice touch of heritage. Just keep in mind that certain colors are not suitable for weddings.
- Asian wedding favors like chopsticks in red envelopes, Chinese fans, or other meaningful mementos.
- Chinese lanterns: the best are red ones, they will give a Chinese-inspired ambiance.
If you are ready for something serious, then:
- you may do the tea ceremony before the wedding. That’s not too hard, although you may need the assistance of an experienced person. But it should definitely appease the Chinese parents. Don’t forget that for non-Chinese parents it’s better to have someone to explain what’s going on.
- Maybe a Chinese wedding food will inspire you as well if you and your husband-to-be are fans of Chinese cuisine.
- And for sure, the change of outfits during the wedding is one of the most exciting modern Chinese wedding traditions, especially if you’re eager to try both Chinese and Western clothing. Chinese weddings typically require several dress changes and even two are really few. Imagine how expressive and colorful you will look during your photography and don’t hesitate to try.