Three Chinese wedding traditions you should know

 

 

These days, more and more young couples are eschewing the traditional ROM ceremony and 8/9-course wedding dinner for a more intimate gathering of their nearest and dearest. Over the years, wedding celebrations have become increasingly westernized and personalized, with every couple wanting their wedding day to be uniquely their own. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that very few in our generation have taken the trouble or interest to revisit their roots.

 

On the other hand, there are also couples who are happy to abide by whatever customs their parents or elders require, and do everything the traditional way. However, even among those that do want to keep these Chinese traditions alive, they may receive conflicting views from various members of the family and get very confused!

 

While most of these traditions do have religious or superstitious roots, some of them also serve as a customary form of respect and reverence to one’s elders. Before you agree to take everything wholesale OR throw it all out the window, it would be good to understand the reasons for these customs and to discuss their importance (or non-importance) with your spouse and both families. If the bride and groom are from two different dialect groups, the bride will typically follow the customs upheld by the groom’s side.

 

To understand the background behind the custom of giving and receiving gifts in a traditional wedding, it’s important to realize that most marriages in the past were arranged alliances between two families, quite unlike the romantic ideas of love and wedlock we have today. As such, the giving and receiving of gifts were considered basic etiquette and a way of formalizing the “partnership”. For instance, the acceptance of the betrothal gifts by the bride’s family would demonstrate their pledge of their daughter in marriage, and they would then reciprocate in kind.

 

 

1. Betrothal Package

The betrothal package (大礼) consists of gifts given by the groom to the bride’s family.

 

Included in the package would be items that symbolize fertility and wealth (typically fruits and dried foods), as well as gifts to convey congratulatory wishes for the couple (eg wedding cakes/biscuits).

 

In the past, the betrothal period could last as long as a year or two, but these days few would hold on to that custom. For the Cantonese/Hakka, this gift is given one to two weeks before the actual wedding day and typically includes the following items:

 

4 ang baos with cash gift

Ang pow with bride price

Traditional wedding biscuits

2 whole chickens

2 bottles of whisky/cognac

2 pairs of dragon phoenix candles

2 sets of dragon phoenix incense

19 mandarin oranges

19 apples

A piece of red cloth

1 plate of Chinese cakes

Some vegetables such as lettuce, celery and shallots

Sesame ball pastry (only for Hakka)

 

If the groom’s family is Teochew/Hokkien, the gift is given on two separate days. The first date (送日子) is a pre-arranged auspicious hour, while the second date (送礼日) is some time after. The bride is not allowed to receive the groom when he delivers the package and wedding invites can only be sent out after the betrothal package is delivered

 

First Day

A partial amount of ang bao

10 or 12 mandarin oranges

Cream biscuits/crackers

 

Second Day

The remaining portion of the ang bao

Traditional wedding biscuits

12 mandarin oranges

Cream biscuits/crackers

A whole roasted pig

2 whole chicken

2 bottles of whiskey/cognac

3 Sets of rice snacks (3 with sesame, 3 with grains)

2 bolts of red cloth

2 pairs of dragon phoenix candles

4 pieces of gold jewellery (四点金) – earrings, necklace, bracelet, ring

 

2. Returning Gifts

 

The bride’s family will “return gifts” (回礼) to the groom’s family before the wedding day. As with the betrothal gifts, many of these items symbolize wealth and fertility. The bride’s family will also return part of the “bride price” (the money received from the groom’s side) to demonstrate their generosity to share.

 

For the traditional Cantonese/Hakka, the returning gift should consist of:

 

18 Chinese cakes

2 Bottles of orange juice

Dried food such as melon seeds, lotus seeds and lily, red dates, longan, tea leaves.

8 mandarin oranges

8 apples

1 pair of undamaged lotus roots*

 

The Teochew/Hokkien returning gift is quite extensive, and should include the items listed above (*except for the undamaged lotus root) as well as the items below:

 

Traditional wedding biscuits

A pair of pants, a belt and a wallet for the groom

1 towel and 1 ang bao each for the groom’s brothers and parents

1 money pouch containing 5 types of grains/nuts

2 yams

2 gingers

1 pair of old ginger

2 stalks of chives

2 blocks of coal with red paper

2 bags of glutinous rice flour

1 piece of tie with tie-clip

1 additional ang bao

Shoes for the elders in the groom’s family*

Shirt for the groom’s father*

Shoes for the groom’s mother*

 

*To make things easier today, most families will give an ang bao to cover the cost of these clothing items.

 

It is customary for the bride’s mother to present the groom with a dowry as part of the returning gift, consisting of practical items such as a chamber pot, bedsheet and dinnerware. This is an opportunity for the girl’s family to display both their social status and their love for their daughter.

 

The dowry () would typically include:

 

New bedsheets and duvet

Tea set (1 plate, 1 teapot, 4 teacups)

1 bedside lamp

1 ruler

1 pair of scissors

1 mirror

1 red umbrella

2 Fans

2 boxes of face powder

Dining set (2 bowl, 2 pair of chopsticks, 2 plates and 2 spoons)

1 pair of Chinese clogs

1 pair of bedroom slippers

1 dozen of double happiness facial towel

Dried food & nuts

Charcoal


For a Cantonese/Hakka family, the dowry includes a descendant pail set, which signifies well wishes for prosperity and long life. It is also meant to symbolize giving luck for having many children.

 

Each descendant pail set includes these three important items: a potty is to symbolise children, a basin to signify the accumulation of health and wealth, and a bath tub, which stands for wealth and success.

 

For a Teochew/Hokkien family, the dowry includes not one but eight descendant pail sets, a chamber pot, an altar cover, and 18 money pouches

 

3. Gifts on actual day

 

Whatever your dialect group, no groom is supposed to arrive at his bride’s house empty-handed for the gate-crashing! The following list details some of the unique items that need to be given for each dialect group.

 

Teochew

 

The groom brings a basket containing a pair of pig front trotters, 8-12 mandarin oranges, peanut candies, betrothal jewellery, 2 bottles of brandy and 2 pairs of dragon phoenix candles.

 

Hokkien

 

The groom brings a basket containing a pair of pig front trotters, rice candies, 8-12 mandarin oranges, 2 bottles of brandy and 2 pairs of dragon phoenix candles.

 

Cantonese/Hakka

 

The groom brings a whole roast pig (or 6 tins of canned pig trotters), an ang bao, 18 oranges, 2 bags of peanuts, 2 bottles of whisky/cognac, 2 whole chickens, 2 stalks of lettuce, 2 stalks of celery, 2 stalks of shallots, 2 bottles of wine and a bottle of rice wine (for ancestral offering).


The bride’s family keeps the centre portion of the roast pig. The remainder of the pig is wrapped in red paper and sent back to the groom’s family, along with a pair of pants for the groom, 2 mandarin oranges, 2 apples and 1 ang bao.