I was recently invited to my first Chinese wedding. I immediately went into a full blown ‘I have nothing to wear’ panic, to which my husband casually waved his hand in the general direction of the wardrobe and asked me ‘what’s that full of then?’. As unhelpful as this was, I realised he had a point (don’t tell him that). I saw the bride-to-be the next day, and asked her what the dress code was, and much to my surprise, she informed me that there wasn’t really one. It was my first inkling that Chinese weddings might differ quite significantly to the usual brouhaha of a western wedding!
Taddy and Matt (the bride and groom) are a beautiful couple who met at Wuhan Prison (the bar, not the clink) in 2015. Matt is from America and moved to Wuhan to work as a Professor of Philosophy at Wuhan University and Taddy is a Wuhan local and co-owner of Bookworm Language Studio in Jiedaokou. They got along immediately and bonded over their mutual love of beer and poker! Taddy and Matt were kind enough to allow me to traipse around after them on their wedding day so I could experience first hand their modern wedding steeped in Chinese tradition.
A traditional western wedding usually starts with a ceremony to officially marry the bride and groom, followed by a reception. This is not the case in China; here the official wedding takes place on a date prior to the Wedding Banquet. The banquet celebrates the couples union and is the formal introduction of Matt and Taddy as husband and wife to their friends and family. The legalization of their marriage actually took place 5 months prior to the wedding banquet at a local government office on the 10th of October 2017. Taddy explained that this auspicious date was chosen because of the recurrence of the number 10 (a whole, even and perfect number). Taddy used a Chinese Idiom to explain this 十全十美 – Shíquánshíměi which means, complete and beautiful, ie. perfection.
I arrived at Taddy’s parent’s apartment on the morning of the wedding banquet, where Taddy was already in the first of her three dresses for the day. Taddy’s makeup artist told her that the first dress is meant to suggest innocence, and indeed it did (poker and beer notwithstanding), for she looked like an ethereal woodland fairy! The apartment was full of balloons, flowers and close family who eagerly awaited Matt’s arrival. There was the general hubbub of photos being taken, and Taddy’s bridesmaids Emily and Becky rushing around preparing the challenges (yes challenges) the groom would have to complete in order for him to be allowed to extract his bride from the the familial home!
At around 10:30 am we were alerted to Matt’s arrival by the din of firecrackers, which were traditionally used in marriage processions to ward off evil spirits (there had been a few false starts in the lead up, as a new apartment complex was having it’s opening ceremony across the street and had been setting off firecrackers all morning!). It is Chinese tradition that on the day of the wedding the groom picks his bride up from her parents house – a tradition which derives from the much older custom of arranged marriage, where a woman might meet her husband for the first time on their wedding day. At this point Taddy and her bridesmaids were ushered into the bedroom and the door was locked. Meanwhile the remaining family rushed to the foyer and waited for Matt.
Matt knocked on the door at 10:38 on the dot (this time was deliberately chosen as it ended in eight, a lucky number in Chinese custom). Taddy’s cousin Chen calmly asked who it was, and when Matt announced himself the foyer erupted with a cacophony of family yelling at him through the closed door, refusing to let him in, and demanding more and more hongbao (little red envelopes with money in them)!
The purpose of the ‘door game’ is so the groom can prove his love for his bride. And indeed, Matt more than adequately demonstrated this when, after he’d pushed handfuls of hongbao through the gap, he broke into a rousing rendition of Java Jive. This was the key that finally opened the door all the way granting Matt and his groomsmen entry to the house. The games did not stop there though! The family let him off pretty easily compared to what the bridesmaids had in store!
Having successfully negotiated the locked door to the house, Matt once again came face to face with yet another barrier that stood between him and Taddy – the Bridesmaids! Matt again had to beg – this time to be let into the bedroom – and pushed hongbao after hongbao under the bedroom door as Emily and Becky demanded ‘More hongbao, More!’. Once they were satisfied that he’d begged and paid enough Matt was allowed into the room (as were we all). However, his marital obstacle course was nowhere near complete. Before Matt could go anywhere near Taddy, (who looked like a perfect porcelain doll in a cloud of organza propped up in the centre of the bed) he first had to complete a number of tests. Let the Bridesmaid Games begin!
Emily and Becky hit Matt with a quiz. What was Taddy’s first pets name? Who was her first celebrity crush? What physical feature of yours is her favourite? (his eyelashes it turns out; get your minds out of the gutter people). I initially thought he’d got a surprising number of the questions wrong, until I went home and asked my husband the same questions, which is when I realised that Matt actually got a surprising number of the questions right!
If Matt did not know the answer, he could ask for clues, but it would cost him more hongbao of which he was running dangerously low! For incorrect answers the bridesmaids resorted to punitive measures, which included Matt having to do pushups; slug back concoctions of cooking wine, soy sauce and vinegar; and, of course, dole out yet more hongbao.
But, everyone’s favourite punishment was when Matt’s brother and best man David looked Matt in the eyes and said ‘I love you bro’ before lying on his back with a baozi between his teeth as Matt did a pushup on top of him to retrieve the baozi with his mouth, everyone cheered him on and roared with laughter! Matt admitted that he was starving and very glad for this punishment!
Matt’s final bridesmaids’ challenge was to find Taddy’s shoes, they had been hidden separately and very well somewhere in the room. So well hidden, in fact, that we had to resort to chants of ‘warm, warmer, cold, warm, warm, hot, hot, boiling hot!!!’ until the elusive second shoe was located!
With Matt’s challenges now mostly complete, he knelt in front of Taddy and told her why and how much he loves her, and asked her to marry him. It was a beautiful and touching moment (I’m not crying, you are!). Taddy obviously said yes (again), and Matt was (finally!) allowed to sit next to his bride, deserving every hug and kiss she gave him!
Before leaving her parents home the bride and groom performed a tea ceremony 改口茶 – gai kou cha with the bride’s parents. This would signify the first time that Matt would call Taddy’s parents Mum and Dad. Matt knelt in front of Taddy’s Mum and Taddy in front of her Dad, and offered them each a cup and said in unison ‘Mum and Dad, please drink the tea.’ After Taddy’s parents had sipped the tea, they gave Matt and Taddy Hongbao, which I imagine would have been a very welcome gift after Matt had ‘made it rain’ with hongbao earlier!
At the conclusion of the tea ceremony, It was time for the wedding party to leave and make their way to the hotel where Matt’s family were staying in order for Matt and Taddy to perform the tea ceremony with them. You don’t think they just walked out the door to the car do you? Of course they didn’t! Traditionally the groom must carry his bride from her parents house through an explosion of confetti cannons (CONFETTI CANNONS!!!) to the car where he must place her in her seat, take a knee once more and put her shoes on her feet! Personally, I think every day should start this way!
We arrived at the hotel just before the start of the banquet and made our way up to the bridal suite where Matt’s parents were waiting and the tea ceremony was once again performed, this time signifying the first time Taddy would call Matt’s parents Mum and Dad. It was also an opportunity for the bride and groom to check out the bridal bed which according to tradition must be decorated by a female family member who cannot be Matt’s Mum and who has two children, a boy and a girl. Luckily Matt’s aunt Debbie fit the bill and had filled the room with balloons and flowers and covered the bed with petals, dried dates, peanuts, longan and lotus seeds. The fruit and nuts were significant as they each contained a character in their name which created the phrase 早生贵子 – have children early!
It had been a long day, my tummy was rumbling and I was overcome with excitement as we made our way down to the banquet. Upon entering the banquet hall I thought I’d mistakenly walked into a fashion show! There was a massive screen on a stage that displayed professional wedding photos of Matt and Taddy in the wedding album they’d made months ago, a runway bordered by huge flower lights and, at the end, a vine covered gazebo! Round tables full of guests filled the hall, and everything looked amazing! I took my seat and waited in anticipation for it all to start!
The Master of Ceremonies is typically a hired professional, he spoke in both English and Chinese, and was (potentially unintentionally) hilarious! He brought Matt up on stage and effused about how glorious he looked and chatted to Matt as he guided him down the runway. My favourite part of their runway meander was when he regaled Matt with the story of his mother who always said to him ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know which one you’re going to get’! As they reached the edge of the gazebo the lights dimmed and the hall filled with music as the doors opened and there stood a spotlit Taddy on her father’s arm in her second more formal dress for the evening.
Taddy and her father entered the hall and met Matt and the MC under the gazebo where Matt again asked Taddy to marry him and Taddy’s father gave Matt his daughter’s arm. Matt and Taddy left the gazebo together and walked back up the runway – symbolizing a walk to a new life – to the stage where the more formal elements of the banquet commenced. This part of the day most closely resembled a western wedding. They exchanged vows and rings, and kissed and then kissed a little more and then kissed a little more still!
At this point lunch was served, and the food was amazing! Each table was served 20 dishes, (my husband almost had to tip me on my side and roll me out of there when we left!). As we gorged on our feast, the bride and groom (Taddy now in her third and final dress, a red dress to represent good luck, happiness and prosperity) went from table to table welcoming their guests, as one by one each table stood to toast the newlyweds.
As per tradition, the happy couple reciprocated the toast by downing small glasses of baiju. There were a lot of tables. That is a lot of baiju. Presumably with an eye to preventing immediate liver failure, the bride and groom’s drinks were replaced with water (as is common practice), thankfully making the toast more symbolic than fatal. The bride and groom’s journey around the tables also provided an opportunity for the guests to give the couple their wedding gift.
It is tradition to give the couple hongbao, the amount given must be an even figure and can vary in amount depending on your closeness to the couple as well as your own ability to give. Typically hongbaos range from 200 yuan to 500 yuan.
Wedding banquets are quite short, this one went from 12:30 until about 3pm. At the end of the banquet we each received a pink box adorned with two little bears (because Matt and Taddy call each other ‘bear’) full of chocolate 喜糖 xi tang – happy candies, an apt name as they did indeed make me very happy! It was a beautiful day full of tradition, excitement and love and I felt extremely privileged to be a part of it. C