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Marriage customs and preparation

In a culture where the perpetuation of family ancestral lineage and the family as a social institution are central, marriage is an important institution and has many intricate customs associated with it. In the Chinese family system the wife lives with the husband’s family and is deemed as no longer part of her own family, but the 'property' of the husband’s family.

Arranged marriages, where the marriage match is arranged by the parents or relatives of the bride and groom were once common in Chinese society but are now rare and viewed as old-fashioned. Marriage is usually now based on the two people involved’s own choices. However, once the couple have chosen each other, the arrangements are usually taken over by the parents (or older relatives), thus observing traditional customs and superstitions.

Chinese men tend to marry fairly late in life, as they need to save up for the expense of the wedding: a Chinese wedding can be very expensive, especially where the involved families are of high social status. Two important components of Chinese culture - the need to avoid embarassment ('saving face') and to conspicuously display wealth and prosperity - come heavily to the fore in marriage, especially where the marriage is of the eldest son. Failure to provide a lavish wedding is likely to lower the status of the family, bring shame upon them and bring criticism from relatives raining down upon them.

There are several stages to a Chinese wedding (described under), usually under the overseeing of the groom’s parents (or older relatives). Weddings are micro-planned and planning is highly time consuming. The process begins when the parents are informed of their son/daughter’s intentions and, if they are in agreement, a meeting between the two families is arranged.

Information gathering

In Chinese culture, a marriage is not simply a love match between two people, but an establishing of a relationship between two families as well. If the parents are not happy with the lineage and status of the other family, a wedding will not occur.

The ‘information gathering’ stage of a wedding involves the groom’s family ascertaining the reputation and lineage of the bride’s family, and the character and behaviour of the bride. This is of great importance as the reputation of the groom’s family is at stake. Before a meeting takes place, the groom’s family will have already made surreptitious enquiries through friends and acquaintances. A meeting will be arranged for the two families to meet- usually without the bride and groom present- and a frank and open discussion will ensue. Some prefer the initial meeting to be held over a meal in a restaurant with members of the extended families such as aunts and uncles present. Sharing a meal will help to break the ice and strengthen the bonds between parties soon to be in-laws. Conversation is likely to revolve around family backgrounds and origins- though not with a serious tones as this may lead to arguments which will lead to a cancellation of the wedding- and serves to allow the two families to become acquainted and establish a rapport. The family of the bride will use the opportunity to investigate the status and wealth of the groom’s family and ensure that their daughter is not likely to be maltreated: as noted before, after marriage the bride will become part of the groom’s family.

Negotiation period

If both families are satisfied with each other, the groom’s parents will send their representative- always female and chosen from among his aunts or elderly relatives- to ask for the bride’s hand in marriage. A time and date is set for this meeting. The representative will discuss a suitable date, the amount of the dowry and the number of tables allocated to the bride’s family at the wedding banquet. The bride’s family will always delay agreement on these matters so as not to appear too eager, even if they have already decided the matters. This is expected, and a second meeting is set, with a period in between to allow any problems to be worked out. However, on her second visit to the bride’s house, the groom’s representative expects a decision. A relevant proverb is used to signal acceptance. The bride’s family will request that the wedding is conducted with due felicity and grandeur, and the amount of dowry and number of required banquet tables will be stated. The groom’s representative will not bargain, as this is considered unseemly: she will only ask the bride’s name and date of birth in order to determine a suitable date for the wedding by reference to a fortune teller. The groom’s family will now be able to estimate the costs of the wedding and start to make preparations. If a relative of either the bride or groom dies before the wedding day, the wedding will be postponed for a period, traditionally a year but now usually reduced to a hundred days, as it is considered inappropriate to hold a wedding during a period of mourning.


If preparations for the wedding can not be made within the specified time period or the couple do not wish to ‘rush into’ marriage, an engagement will occur first, but only with the bride’s parents’ consent. The engagement is usually a simple affair, with an exchange of rings (worn on the third finger of the left hand), and the engagement is of an unspecified time period. Chinese engagements are not a binding commitment to marriage, but an indication that the couple intends to marry. Engaged couples may sometimes live together as man and wife (if their parents consent), but formal marriage is always preferred because of its (relative) permanency.

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Page last modified: 14-12-2017 17:07:12 ZULU