A guide to Chinese weddings for the clueless guest
Here's the tea (ceremony)
Us Malaysians really have a thing for complicated weddings riddled with symbolism and tradition. On one hand, it's a wonderful opportunity to become truly immersed in the multicultural society we live in but on the other, keeping track of what's going on at any given time can be a nightmare.
Like in Malay and Indian weddings, there sure are a lot of steps before a couple ties the knot. For the bride and groom, the pre-wedding rituals are extensive and it certainly doesn't get easier on the wedding day itself. Lucky for you, you're just a guest, so we can skip the nuances and focus on 1) giving you some context and 2) what you have to do.
This is the official proposal, and the formal meeting between the couple's parents prior to the actual wedding day. Guo Da Li (过大礼) is where the groom's family offers the bride's family gifts to make the betrothal official. During this event, the gifts that the groom presents the bride's family with include betrothal gift money, two pairs of Double Happiness candles (including two dragons and two phoenixes), cakes, fruits and jewellery for the bride.
The bride's family then returns the groom's favours with their own gifts, including a portion of the betrothal gift money back (usually half), a gift for the groom, fruits and cakes. They also gift the groom a set of items to bring to the bridal chamber, where the bridal bed is set up, with each item symbolising a different pillar of marriage.
At the same time (or some time before), the couple's families will pick a wedding date. Just like in Indian weddings, the ceremony must be held at an auspicious date and time. To ensure this, experts such as Buddhist monks and trusted fortune tellers are consulted to pick a day that doesn't clash with the four pillars of the bride and groom's birth time. once picked, the official wedding invitations are then sent out to relatives and friends to announce the wedding, along with gifts that include Double Happiness Cakes and other foods.
Bridal Bed (An Chuang 安床)
A woman of good fortune from the groom's family (with a living husband, children and grandchildren) will prepare the bridal bed a few days before the wedding (at an auspicious date and time). The bed is covered with new red linen, a plate of dried longan, lotus seeds, red dates, persimmons, pomegranate leaves and, of course, two red packets (ang pau). The significance of this ritual is to symbolise a long and healthy union.
If they really want to tie it all together, a young, healthy boy will be made to jump on the bed. That sounds a little rogue, but it's meant to symbolise fertility for the couple. After that, no one is allowed to sit or sleep in it until after the wedding!
(Don't worry. You're not needed here.)
Hair combing ceremony (Shang Tou)
This occurs the night before the wedding, or early in the morning on the wedding day itself. Held at both the homes of the bride and groom, the couple are both bathed in water with pomelo leaves to cleanse the body and protect them from evil spirits.
Then, the parents of the couple then perform the hair combing ceremony on them, which symbolises the 'coming of age' or attainment of maturity of the couple. In total their hair is combed four times, and with each stroke of the comb a different blessing is pronounced. The blessings include everlasting marriage, harmony in the marriage, fertility and fortune and good health.
Once the ceremony is complete, the couple is fed glutinous rice balls in syrup to bring about sweetness to their relationship.
(Again, you're scot-free for this part.)
The first course of action for the big day is the groom making his way over to his bride's house, where he will be received by a younger brother (or any young boy in a pinch) of the bride. The start of the journey is accompanied by firecrackers, drums and gongs to ward off bad spirits (and add to the excitement, of course).
For couples who practice Buddhist or Taoist customs, the bride's family will set up a table of offerings for the gods and their ancestors to bless the couple with a long, happy marriage—while waiting for the groom to arrive. Apart from foods and sweet treats there will, of course, be incense sticks to burn.
Before the groom can meet his bride, he must complete a few novel tasks. Cue in: gate crashing.
Jip San Leong/Heng Tai Games
Also known as 'Gate Crashing'/'Collect the Bride', these are a set of obstacles set by the bride's friends (or bridal party) for the groom and his entourage to complete.
The objective of this ritual is to prove himself worthy of the bride (and for the bride's friends to give the groom and his friends a healthy dose of humiliation). In short, if you're in the bridal party this will probably be a lot of fun and if you're in the groom's entourage–good luck!
Once the groom and his friends complete their challenge—by bribing the bridal party into releasing his bride back to him with a red packet, the happy couple can make their way over to the groom's house. As they arrive at their new home, a red carpet is laid out so as to prevent the bride's feet from touching the ground. Once in the groom's home, the groom is able to then officially ask for the bride's hand in marriage, exchange rings and lift her (traditionally red) veil for a smooch.
If you're wondering when the vows are gonna happen, you're out of luck. Vows are typically the shortest part of the wedding day (they don't even take place during the ceremony!) This may be confusing, but the vows happen at a local government office before the celebration where the paperwork is signed in an intimate ceremony. Dependent on religion/customs observed, the couple stand at the family altar and pay their respects to nature, their ancestors and their gods during the ceremony. No guests watch the actual unionisation of the couple—just the celebration of it!
This is the ceremony that makes the marriage 'official', and it is held either on the day of the marriage ceremony or the day after at both the bride and groom's respective family homes.
In the tea ceremony, the bride and groom serve Tsao Chün tea to their parents and their older married relatives to signify love, respect and gratitude. The order is as follows: the groom's parents, then the rest of the relatives from oldest to youngest. After the elders sip their teas, they hand the newlyweds a red packet.
Typically held in a hotel ballroom, the reception is usually a Chinese banquet—a huge feast with all the friends and family of bride and groom present. During the reception, the couple will make their rounds and greet their guests who will be dining and dancing to their hearts content.
Like at any wedding reception, if you're not particularly close to the couple it's likely you'll be attending the reception only. Either way, it's an opportunity for the guests to mingle, party and celebrate the newlyweds, so relax and and enjoy yourself!
As in a traditional western wedding, the bride and group will cut the cake. Although it isn't part of any Chinese tradition, modern couples have made this an increasing phenomenon at their weddings—the only catch is that the cake is barely real (for some at least). Yes: the delicious five-tiered extravaganza your mouth watered over is predominantly inedible, and just for show. Cruel deception aside, to the newlywed's credit, it's a great way to save on wedding expenses.
One thing that may leave you particularly confused, especially as a novice attendee at a Chinese wedding, is the Grand Toast. In other words, this is the part of the night where the bride and groom and their parents stand on stage and toast with the guests three times. The toast simply requires you to say 'Cheers' in Cantonese, phonetically spelt as "Yam Seng". All you have to remember is to drag out the "Yam" as long as possible, then finish off with a loud, celebratory "Seng!". If this is all too much don't fret—if you're not sure what to do, follow thy neighbours actions.
Customs of the wedding reception:
- As in Malay and Indian weddings, you will be bringing an ang pau (monetary gift) for the newlyweds in a red packet. There is no set amount to give, so depending on how close you are to the couple and where the wedding is hosted at, it can range anywhere from RM100-RM5000.
- Remember not to give your ang pau in a white or black envelope as these colours are associated with funerals.
- Respectfully congratulate the elders, which means be polite and definitely don't attempt auspicious wishes unless you're sure you've nailed it (you could just end up offending them).
- Don't bring a plus one if your invitation is addressed only to you (ditch the kids and have a night out!)
- Good luck trying to speak to the newlyweds, especially if the reception is on the larger side—with all their guests, it's nearly impossible for them to address everyone personally .
How to dress for the wedding
- Just because the bride has four outfit changes (yes, the bride is likely to have multiple outfits) doesn't mean you have to! You could wear a traditional Chinese outfit (click here for some inspo), or just opt for a formal evening gown or suit.
- Avoid black or white outfits as these are associated with funerals (men, we know a black suit is hard to avoid, but try to spice it up with a coloured shirt or tie!)