Chinese Wedding Traditions


I. The Proper Procedures: Three Letters and Six Etiquette

This is the elaborate process on the groom's parents' part to look for the right kind of bride for their family. Rich families will look for a bride who can take care of household finances and most importantly, give birth to sons to inherit the wealth of the family. Poor families will look for a bride who can work hard in the fields and give birth to sons to help out on the farm.

In the old days, marriages are arranged so it's quite normal for the parents to dominate the bride-seeking process. Girls from rich family will be sought out by other rich families and poor girls will probably marry into poor families. Hence the Chinese saying: bamboo door is to bamboo door as wooden door is to wooden door.

There are some circumstances where the marriage has been arranged when both the bride and the groom were very young or not even born. In the former case, a young girl may be bought by the rich family as a servant girl to serve the rich boy. When the boy grew up, she may become either his wife or one of his concubines. In the latter case, two pregnant mothers will make the promise that when the babies are born, if they were both boys or both girls, they would become brothers or sisters and if one baby was a boy and the other a girl, they would get married. Hence the saying: pointing to the bosom as a marriage promise. However, a lot of times when the boy grew up, his family may have fallen from prestige and sometimes the girl's family may refuse to let them get married. There are numerous folktales about tragedies that stem from arranged marriage. However, there are also many happy endings to arranged marriage. All we can say is that it was the fact of life at that time.

Ia. Three Letters

In the old days, all communication was through formal letters. Therefore, the letters play an important role in the events.

Request Letter

This letter confirms the formal arrangement of a marriage. It is sent by the groom's family to the bride's family. This letter is normally presented with the initial gifts for the bride's family.

Gift Letter

This letter accompanies the formal gifts for the Bride's family. It is actually a gift list that records the description and quantity of the gifts.

Wedding Letter

This letter is presented to the bride's family on th day of the wedding. It confirms the act of bringing the bride into the groom's family.

Ib. Six Etiquette

The Chinese word for etiquette can mean both customs and gifts. The following customs are known as the Six Etiquette

Request for Marrying the Bride

After the groom's family has spotted a young girl whom the groom wants to marry, the family will hire a spokeswoman who will communicate their wish to the potential bride's family. (In the old days, it is popular to hire elderly ladies as midwives or spokeswoman for the groom.) This lady will persuade the potential bride's family to accept the offer from the groom's family. Both sides will negotiate certain terms. If successful, both families will proceed to the next step.

Request for Bride and Groom's Birth Dates

This is the second step in arranging a marriage. Upon successfuly completion of the previous step, the groom's family will request for the bride's 'Eight Letters' through the spokeswoman. In Chinese calendar, there are 22 'letters' that we use to represent date. Ten are known as 'Tian Gan' and twelve are 'Di Zhi'. Two letters are used to represent each of teh following: year, month, day and time. Altogether, eight letters will accurately represent the bride's birthdate. After obtaining the 'Eight Letters' of the groom and potential bride, a fortune telling master will be hired to determine whether the two match each other. If there is nothing wrong with the bride's birthdate, the groom's family will proceed to the next step. Otherwise, there will be no further contact between the families and the groom's family may look for another suitable bride.

Initial Gifts for the Bride's Family

If the potential bride's birthdate is acceptable, the groom's family will request the spokeswoman to send some initial gifts accompanied by the gift letter.

Formal Gifts for the Bride's Family

The groom's family will pick a 'good day' and send the bride's family the following bridal gifts: gifts, cash, cakes and food and sacrifices for worshiping the ancestors. This act confirms the marriage agreement between the two families.

Select the Wedding Date

The fortune telling master will select a 'good day' according the the bride and groom's and their family's birthdates.

Wedding Day

On the big day, both the bride and the groom's house will be decorated in red. The groom's family will send out a procession of servants, musicians and a carriage which is carried by four servants to the bride's family to bring the bride back. The bride will then be brought back to the groom's house and the two will perform the marriage cermony witnessed by all the relatives and friends. The bride and groom will worship the heavens and the earth, the groom's ancestors and they will also serve tea to all of their superiors in the family. After that, the superiors will give them red packages (lai see) with monetary gifts and wish them well. The groom's family will then throw a huge feast (if they can afford it) for the friends and relatives to celebrate the wedding. All along, the spokeswoman will oversee the whole process and keep toasting the couple.

After the meal, the newly wed couple will return to the bridal room and some naughty friends may tag-along and play tricks on the groom. When all is done, the couple will drink and toast and the spokeswoman will offer sweets and fruits to the couple to wish them long life and lots of kids (!). Then, the couple will finaly be left with themselves and the groom can take off the red cloth that covers the bride's face.


II. Preparation for the wedding

IIa. Setting up the Bridal Bed

After the groom's family has selected a 'good day' as the wedding day, a man who's considered to have had good fortune all through his life will be hired to move the bridal bed to the right place. Then a lady who's considered to have had good fortune [with healthy and living husband and sons] will make the bed and place certain good fortune food and fruits on the bed. Then the bed will be left untouched until the day of the wedding.

IIb. The Bride's Gifts for the Groom

The bride's gifts for the groom will either arrive a couple of days before the wedding day or if she's a relatively long-distance bride, she'll bring along the gifts with her maids as she arrive at the groom's home on wedding day.

The bride's gifts usually consists of valuable jewelry and precious stones, kitchen utensils, proper bridal linen such as sheets, pillow covers and clothes. In some area, the bride's family is expected to furnish the bridal except for the bridal bed. There's a saying that if the bride supplies the bridal bed, then the family is practically giving the bride away for free.

IIc. Combing Hair

The night before the wedding, both the bride and the groom needs to find a 'good fortune' woman and man to comb their hair in his/her home respectively. Both the bride and the groom needs to take shower before the event, change to some fresh new underwear and incense needs to be burnt. The bride also needs to sit next to a window where the moon can be seen. Their hair needs to be combed four times and each has a special meaning:

The first combing symbolizes: from beginning till the end

The second combing symbolizes: harmony from now till old age

The third combing symbolizes: sons and grandsons all over the place

The fourth combing summaries good wealth and a long-lasting marriage.

The whole action also symbolizes the adulthood of the couple. If either has been married before, then the combing event can be skipped for that person.


III. Wedding Day Activities

IIIa. Wedding Day: picking up the Bride

On the day of the wedding, the groom will send a carriage over to the bride's family to bring the bride home. The carriage is decorated in red and is carried by four servants. Musicians will accompany the procession and they will play wedding music all the way. A lot of gifts are also brought to the bride's family at the same time.

At the bride's home, the bride will put on her bright red wedding gown and the bride's parents will give her jewelry to wear.

IIIb. Bride Leaving Home

As the groom's procession arrives, the groom's spokeswoman will enter the bride's house and will carry the bride on her back. The bride cannot touch the ground with her feet until she arrives at the groom's house. In some regions, the bride's relatives will throw rice into the air, hoping that the chickens around will eat the rice instead of pecking at the bride. Sometimes, a red umbrella is used to shield the bride as the opening of the umbrella will symbolize her bringing many descendants to the groom's family. As the bride leaves the house, her parents and her relatives will bid her farewell as she rides the carriage and leaves home. Wealthy brides often have servant girls who will follow her to the groom's family and continue to serve her. These maids are known as ones who 'accompany the marriage'.

IIIc. Bride Arriving at the Groom's Home

After the bride arrive at the groom's house, the couple will again worship the ancestors and worship the heavens and earth. Then they will serve tea to the groom's family according the their seniority and the relatives will give them red packets or bridal jewelry in return.

IIId. The Wedding Banquet

To celebrate the marriage, the groom's family will throw a wedding feast as large as they can afford. In the old days, some villagers may use up to seven continuous days to entertain the relatives during a wedding. Every night, delicious food is being served to all the guests.


IV. Post Wedding Activities

IVa. The Bride Returning Home after 3 Days

Three days after the wedding, the bride is expected to return to her family. The bride will bring along roasted pig and gifts for the family. Some regions require that the groom accompany her while some didn't. Nonetheless, this is probably the last chance the bride gets to see her parents. Therefore, she will bring along a lot of gifts for the family and she may even stay for a couple of days or even more.

As a tradition, the bride's family will also return part of the gifts to the groom's family as a courtesy. Some regional custom requires that the family should return the head and tail of the roasted pig to the groom's family symbolizing the good beginning and end of the wedding.

Modern Chinese Wedding Customs


The above practices contributed to the festive atmosphere of a wedding, however, most of the customs are not performed to its fullest extent in the modern world. Instead of performing all these ancient practices, even most elders would prefer the following 'simplified customs' nowadays. For the modernized customs (or the even more simplified customs) , please see this section on Modern Customs.

When to get married?

Hong Kong is a funny place where wedding plans are not driven by the couple's relationship. It is often restrained by financial situations. Given Hong Kong's US$500-US$1000-per square-foot real estate price and 9% interest rate on mortgage plan plus the cost of an elaborate Chinese wedding banquet that most parents require, most couples struggle for years in order to save money for the wedding. As crazy as it seems, I know a couple who applied for public housing for 8 years and failed every single time and finally got married because they had to before they can apply for a different government housing scheme and still failed and finally ended up living with their parents. They love each other but they had to wait all these years because of the lack of a living quarter. Another couple planned to get married in 92 but their parents fail to compromise on the number of guests they can invite to the wedding banquet and it finally took the young couple 4 more years to save enough in order to satisfy the needs of the parents. Therefore, the financial restraint has torn up many couples. For those fortunate enough, they will then go through the following procedures.....

Preparation for the Wedding

Ia. Exchange Birth Dates and Family Tree

If the groom and the bride's birthdates are OK (meaning that no disaster is predicted by the fortune teller if the two get married), the two families will exchange their family records/family tree.

However, this custom is not always being followed depending how superstitious the families are.

Ib. Send Gifts to Bride's Family

The modern families usually send both the intial gifts and the formal gifts to the bride's home on one day instead of separating the two events. Most families still need to consult the Chinese calendar to pick a 'good day' which is normally about one month before the wedding.

Instead of sending the whole list of gifts such as livestock, certain 'good-luck' food or material, some couples simplify the gifts and the groom will only send some nice gifts such as dried seafood and fruit basket to the bride's family. (Nowadays, most parents don't know what to do with some lively chicken flying around the fifteen-storey high apartment. Plus, there's a great chance that they'll suffocate before arriving at the bride's home, given Hong Kong's infamous traffic jams)

As for the 'monetary gift', the groom will either pay a certain agreed amount to the bride's family or will offer to pay for all of the wedding cost. The negotiation will then focus on how many tables the groom is able to offer to the bride's family during the wedding banquet. Sometimes, the bride's family will insist on having a certain number of guests but if the groom cannot afford it, they will try to compromise. At other times, the groom's family may have a certain reason to limit the bride's number of guests, such as if the groom's family is not too large, some relatives may feel uneasy if the bride's family invite more guest than the groom's family. Even nowadays, this is a potential area for conflict between the two families.

IIa. Setting up the Bridal Bed

Not every couple can afford to buy a new bed as the bridal bed nowadays. Especially with the outrageous real estate prices in Hong Kong, not every couple has their own place and a new bed, so it's now quite customary to simply change the linen to the traditional red linen as a symbolic act for setting up the bridal bed. Some couples don't even bother with that. They may simply buy some nice Esprit or Ikea linen and use those as the 'bridal linens'.

IIb. The Bride's Gifts for the Groom

Not many people will follow this rule still. The only jewelry the bride brings over to the groom's family is probably the ones that her relatives give her on wedding day as a wedding gift.

Some brides contribute some of the gifts from relatives to pay for the banquet as well and some say that is considered as part of the 'bride's gifts' as well.

IIc. Combing Hair

Some couples choose to skip this event altogether, although it is a relatively simple act compared to the others.

IIIa. Wedding Day: picking up the Bride

Nowadays, the bridesmaid will have most fun during the picking up of the bride. Early in the morning, the groom and the groomsmen will decorate the cars and drive them over to the bride's home. At the door, the bridesmaids will prepare a lot of tricky questions for the groom to answer. The groom not only has to answer all the questions, he also has perform certain acts such as doing push-ups to show that he's strong enough to take care of the bride,or sing out his love for the bride in front of many people. The groomsmen will help the groom to pass all these tests. The last test is a financial test. The groom has to pay the bridesmaids some 'red packets' [good fortune] as gifts, then the groom and his groomsmen can enter the house and greet the bride.

The couple will then serve tea to the superior in the bride's family. The bride's parents will be the first to be served, followed by other relatives. Each one will give the couple some present in return, often red packets and jewelry for the bride [gold is often preferred in the Southern region].

IIIb. Bride Leaving Home

Nowadays, only very traditional families may use the red umbrella or throw rice as the bride leaves the house. Most people do not perform any special activities and the bride's parents and relatives will either go to the Marriage Registrar or the church to attend the wedding ceremony.

IIIc. Bride Arriving at the Groom's Home

Again, the couple will then serve tea to the superior in the groom's family. The groom's parents will be the first to be served, followed by other relatives. Each one will give the couple some present in return, often red packets and jewelry for the bride. After that, the whole family will leave for the Marriage Registrar or the church to attend the wedding ceremony.

IIId. The Wedding Banquet

This is probably the part of the tradition that has been very well kept. In the modern Chinese society, the wedding feast is considered to be very important as supposed to the church ceremony or even the signing of the marriage license at the Government's Marriage Registrar. Most parents do not mind the rest of the tradition except for this part. To the parents, the wedding feast is a chance for them to return their relative's kindness and to announce the marriage of their kids. If the wedding feast turns out to be good, then it's a great thing because they will have 'face'. In the Chinese culture, it's most important to have 'face' [respected by others].

Traditionally, the groom will pay for everything but nowadays, some young couples will offer to pay for themselves. As mentioned before, this is the area with the highest likelihood for conflicts between families of the bride and the groom. The bride's family will want to invite as many friends and families as possible while the groom's family may either have a budget concern or they do not want the bride's family to invite more friends than they do in fear of losing 'face'. Note that the bride and the groom's own friends are often being neglected. The wedding banquet is truly more of a parental event than that of the young couple's. There are many jokes about some people slipping into wedding banquets and nobody even noticed until the young couple exchange notes afterwards and realize the guests are neither the bride nor the groom's relatives. Or that the guest went to the wrong banquet in the same restaurant [there may be 3 or 4 banquets going on at the same time in the restaurant, separated by partitions or rooms] without knowing it.

Once the guest list is drafted, the parents will then decide on the menu. A traditional Chinese banquet will include somewhere around 12 courses including an appetizer [lobster salad], roast pig, abalone, shark fin soup and end with fried rice/noodles, dessert and fresh fruit. The food is of utmost importance to Chinese and in most cases only delicacies are served. Besides,really nice cognac such as VSOP is often being served. As a side note, most restaurant finds the beverage to be a great way to rip off the family as you can never keep track of how many Cokes each guest has consumed.

During the feast, the guests are seated in round tables and sometimes seating plans are being made in order to avoid guests not knowing each other being seated at the same table. Each guest will normally bring along monetary gift that runs around US$50-US$100 in Hong Kong [the price varies in different regions]. Normally the gifts can barely cover the cost of the banquet, therefore, the banquet is a great financial constraint in the couple's planning. [...that is, on top of the US$500-US$1000-per square-foot real estate price and 9% interest rate on mortgage plan in Hong Kong]. As for the wedding colour, it is quite standard: red.

The events in a Chinese wedding banquet have been modified a bit nowadays. Before the banquet starts, most of the guests will participate in one of the Chinese national games, mahjong [a Chinese tile game]. Others will take photos with the bride and the groom. When the food is ready, the waiters will play a modified xylophone and wedding music will start to play in the background. Some couples will hire an MC to conduct the ceremony. Due to Western influence, the best man and maid of honour often gets to toast the bride and the groom before food is being served. During the serving of shark fin soup, the couple will go from table to table, toasting the guests and thanking them. In return, the guests will also toast the bride and the groom. After that, the groomsmen, bridesmaids and friends of the young couple will often play certain tricks on them. This is similar to the clinking of glasses in the Western culture. The goal is to make the groom show his love in public. Some of the games are X-rated, depending what kind of friends the couple has. Some games are similar to the ones played in during bridal shower or a bachelar's party. Others may be a bit more outrageous.

After that, the bride will change into a different gown [For some peculiar reason, brides have to change into 4 or 5 different dresses on the wedding day]. As the time draws near for the guests to leave, the parents, the couple and the relatives will stand in line at the door to thank the guests and wish them well as they leave. This is contrary to the receiving line in Western culture. Chinese has 'retreating line' instead. When all the guests have left, the bridal party will go home. That is, if the couple is not holding the banquet in a hotel where a guest room is provided for the newly wed to stay. If so, the persistent friends will break into the room and play more games on the newly wed. For details, please refer to directory Lee An's movie Wedding Banquet which has a great description on wedding banquets.


IV. Post Wedding Activities

IVa. The Bride Returning Home after 3 Days

Nowadays in certain regions, this rule is still being followed where the bride will return to the family with gifts. However, in some regions, this custom is being simplified so the bride will return home on the same day if distance allows. Otherwise, some brides will leave the door, and then return to the house again and count that as 'returning home'.


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✍: Shirley Chang

2021-10-07, 5435🔥, 0💬