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Weddings today can range from simple civil ceremonies, where the bride and groom sign a marriage contract to long, complex betrothals with an array of nuptial rules to follow, symbolic gifts to bestow, and formal teas to attend. There is a choice between "old style" and "modern," tradition-bound Asian versus Western individualism, rural/domestic versus commercial, matchmaking versus romantic love. A contemporary mix of East and West may range from bridesmaids fending off groomsmen at the bridal suite to weddings organized mostly on the Internet.  In all cases, however, there is more to the occasion than just being "joined together" as a married couple. In traditional Chinese terms, the wedding ceremony is a statement to the ancestors of the groom that the family has brought in a daughter-in-law, a person who will help continue the descent line for another generation and aspire to preserve the integrity of the family.

This excerpt focuses on the elaborate weddings ceremonies and symbolic rites arranged for couples paired by matchmakers, as observed mainly in Taiwan.  The  traditional way of meeting and becoming engaged through an intermediary is sometimes practiced, especially in rural areas of Taiwan and the People's Republic, although communication, mutual attraction, and personal choice characterize a growing number of marriage decisions in present-day China.

Resources on Weddings

The Writing of Weddings in Middle-Period China: Text and Ritual Practice in the Eighth through Fourteenth Centuries
by Christian de Pee
State University of New York Press, 2007

This is a book about the practice of the text. It examines the intersections between the practice of writing and the practice of weddings during the Middle Period, from the late Tang (618-907) through the Yuan dynasty (1272-1368), and in the process reassesses the relationship between the Middle Period text and the practice of the historian.  Its fourfold narrative of the writing of weddings and its spirited engagement with the texts--ritual manual, engagement letters, nuptial songs, calendars and almanacs, and legal texts--offer a form and style for a cultural history that accommodates the particularities of the sources of the Chinese imperial past.

...The ephemeral configurations of grooms and brides and wedding guests, the unique sights and sounds and fragrances of Middle-Period weddings, have by nature ever defied the limitations of the written page. But where writing was a ritual practice, and where the text was a ritual object, texts do yet preserve, amid their configurations of written signs, traces of the practice of Middle-period weddings. The detailed choreographies of ritual manuals allow the reader, now as then, to merge through symmetrical, centered time and space with the perfect ceremonies of legendary antiquity. The lavish display of wit and erudition in engagement letters creates linear hierarchies of literary production and linear successions of literary fashions that are replicated in the linear time and space of their ritual narratives. The recondite cosmological calculations of calendars and almanacs assume a cyclical time and space in which the revolutions of noxious dangers and bright opportunities determine auspicious and inauspicious dates, hours, and locations for weddings. Legal verdicts reconfigure local wedding ceremonies according to the universal categories of imperial law, in the ritual time and space of imperial government, yet in the process of their translation, in the margins of judgments, become dimly, briefly visible unwritten cultures of colloquial practice.
(excerpted from preface)

Example of engagement letter from  New Book for the Old Man under the Moon: A Comprehensive Guide for Wedding Ritual, New Edition (Xinbian hunli beiyong yuelao xinshu, ca. 1260)

A dyer's son marries the daughter of a silk merchant

My son is not one warped by learning, he can barely tell black from white; now that we join two surnames in marriage, I am glad that we are bound by silken cords. Although we have measured each other up several times already, eventually it is fate that ties us together. We have not yet discussed the splendor of choosing purple, or picking black; and I dare not bring up the fortune of emulating the Reds, of honoring the Whites. Before offering these five lengths of plain cloth I labored as though tailoring silk were my profession; in presenting this length of text I regret that I cannot add to its substance with clouds of dye.
(p. 112-113)

Education About Asia: Marriage and Family in Asia, Volume 13, Number 1, Spring 2008
  • "Marriages and Families in East Asia: Something Old, Something New" by Laura Kendall, pp. 5-10.
    The frequently articulated tensions between "old-style" versus modernity, "Korean tradition" versus "Western"…bore out my supposition that wedding rituals were an excellent lens through which to examine larger social trends, and particularly, changing expectation of marriage and family life…This essay provides some sense of variation and trends social scientists working in the region (China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam) today have discerned.
  • "Marriage and Family in China: Ideology and Practice" by Lisa Tran, pp. 17-20.
    …The Confucian values that shaped marriage and family for almost two millennia continue to influence contemporary China. The current gender imbalance in the youth population and the continued practice of female infanticide in the countryside attest to the persistence of Confucian thinking. Providing old-age support for elderly parents is still considered an important filial obligation. But the legal, political, and cultural assault on Confucianism over the course of the past century had muted its influence. For today’s generation, the goal of marriage is to achieve conjugal happiness, not to fulfill patrilineal obligations or to meet state priorities; and the meaning of family centers on their children, not their parents.
International Institute for Asian Studies IIAS: Transnational Marriage in Asia, 45, Autumn 2007
  • "Transnational Marriage in Asia," by Melody Lu, guest editor, p.3
    In today's rapidly globalizing world, marriage as a contract between two individuals based on love and commitment to each other is increasingly considered a norm. The degree of women's control over their mutual decisions and choice of mate, based on individual traits rather than the family's socio-economic status, is seen as a measure of whether a society has embraced modernity. In reality, marriage involves many actors with complex decision-making processes and multiple considerations. In many Asian societies, being and staying married, for both men and women, is a social and family obligation and a criterion of social standing. This is particularly the case of cross-border marriages, with the state deciding and controlling who is allowed to marry, whether spouses are allowed to enter or reside in the receiving societies, as well as their naturalization and assimilation process.

    As well as a rapidly increasing intra-Asian flow of marriage migration, there is a continued growth of Asian women marrying and migrating to the West and 'in-between' diaspora communities… The dominant view is that women enter cross-border marriages for economic gains… Two terms indicating rather different conceptual emphases are used: cross border and transnational… The term cross-border marriage emphasizes geographical, national, racial, class and gender and cultural borders in the hosting societies... The term transnational marriage emphasizes a transnational network and space created by the actors themselves; as well as the transactions of economic resources, symbols and political and cultural practices between the sending and receiving communities…
  • "Daughter-in-law for the second time": Taiwanese mothers-in-law in the family of cross-border marriage," by Hsing-Miao Chi, p. 7
    In traditional Chinese society, the older generations of women in kinship relations had more power than the younger ones. However, with the transformation of Taiwanese society and family form, contemporary mothers-in-law are often described as the generation of women 'caught in between', no longer commanding the privilege and authority of their mothers-in-law’s generation, but with high expectations of their own daughters-in-law.

Images of Chinese Weddings in the 1920s-30s