The full traditional wedding rituals was based on the The Book of Rites, The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial and the Baihu Tong outline the Three Covenants and the Six Rites, which today is known as Three Letters and Six Etiquette (三书六礼). However, these have been simplified over the years.
What remained today is the similar aim to enhance the joining of two families, and ensuring continuation of family lineage. Reverence to seniors and ancestors, symbolic fertility and prosperous rites, the customary gift exchange etiquette are still adhered to.
For the Chinese, the bride is married into the groom’s family following her husband’s family name.
Three Letters (三书)
This traditional formal custom is rarely observed today. In the old days, all communication was through formal letters.
• Request Letter — a confirmation of the formal arrangement of a marriage sent by the groom's family to the bride's family. This is normally presented together with the initial gifts for the bride's family.
• Gift Letter — a gift list recording the description and quantity of gifts sent to the bride's family.
• Wedding Letter — a letter presented to the bride's family on the day of the wedding to confirm the act of bringing the bride into the groom's family.
Six Etiquette (六礼)
The wedding process begin with an elaborate marriage proposal and acceptance. Part of this tradition etiquette is still observed, and some in a modified manner.
• Request for Marrying the Bride (提亲)
Traditionally, the groom’s parent will send a matchmaker to present gifts to the potential bride-to-be to sound out their take, and persuade them to accept the match. Both side will negotiate terms and proceed if both families are agreeable.
The traditional formal way of asking for the bride’s hand in marriage is seldom practiced today and has been replaced by a marriage proposal to the bride. Though part of this customs have been displaced, most men will still seek the bride’s parents approval as a mark of respect. A ‘Meet the Parents’ session is commonly arranged for the two families to meet before marriage plans are finalized.
For me, I am secretly glad that my then boyfriend did the whole works of roses, ring and a formal proposal though amid a less than expected environment. Nevertheless, I appreciate his thoughts and this is much ahead of the standard HDB proposals!
• Request for Bride and Groom's Birth Dates (合对八字)
After agreeing to the match, the groom’s family will request the bride’s ‘Eight letters of birth time’ (生辰八字) to check with the fortune master on their compatibility. If the match is found to be favorable, the groom’s family will proceed with the match. Otherwise, the groom’s family will look for another suitable match and there will be no further contact between the families.
The matching of birthdates is still practiced today, but to a lesser extent. Most couples and families will seek the advise of a Master for auspicious wedding date and time.
• Initial Gifts for the Bride's Family
Traditionally, groom's family will get the matchmaker to send some initial gifts together by the gift letter if the bride's birth date is acceptable. This is however not practiced in modern times.
• Formal Gifts for the Bride's Family (过大礼/下娉/纳彩)
The groom's family will send the bride's family the bridal betrothal gifts to confirm the marriage agreement between the two families. This is now commonly known as ‘Guo Da Li’, a gesture to show the sincerity between the two families and the promise to take care of the bride. During olden days, the value of the betrothal gifts determines the financial stability of the groom.
The betrothal gifts prepared based on the bride and groom dialect groups and requirement of both families, are delivered to the bride’s family normally 1-4 weeks before the wedding day by the groom and a senior or a matchmaker on the auspicious chosen date. The betrothal gifts acknowledged the parent’s efforts raising the bride, and by accepting the gifts, the bride’s family pledged her to the groom. Click here to view photos.
Typical betrothal gifts (娉礼) include:
∞ PinJin (娉金 bride’s price) red packet
∞ Pair of His and Her towels to signify their respect and gratitude towards their parents.
∞ 2 bottles of liquor to celebrate the joyous occasion
∞ 2 pairs of dragon and phoenix candles
∞ Eight types of grains to represent wealth and prosperity, and to signify a sweet beginning for the couple (eg. Red dates, lily blubs, dried longans, lotus seeds, red beans, green beans, walnuts, peanuts with shell)
∞ 2 boxes of vermicelli to represent longevity for the couple
∞ 12 oranges to represent good luck and fortune
∞ Roast pig (Cantonese); roast pork or pig trotters or canned pork trotters (Hokkien)
∞ Eight types of seafood (Cantonese) - abalone, shark’s fin, fish maw, oyster, scallop, mushroom, sea cucumber, shrimp
∞ Pair of gold dragon and phoenix bangles (Cantonese)
∞ Set of four pieces of jewellery (Teochew)
∞ Wedding cakes. It is customary for the bride’s family to distribute the cakes they received to friends and relatives as a form of announcement as well as the invitation to the wedding banquet.
Typical return gifts (回礼) to groom’s family include:
Most bride’s families will return a portion of the betrothal gifts to signify that the groom’s family is overly generous, the bride’s family is not greedy, and that the two families will share their good fortune.
∞ Portion of the bride’s price (娉金 PinJin)
∞ 2 bottles of orange juice/syrup
∞ 2 phoenix candles (the bride’s family will light the two dragon candles, while the groom’s side the phoenix candles on the morning of the wedding day)
∞ Head and tail plus feet and half of the roasted pig brought by the groom to signify a good and complete beginning and end
∞ Portion of the wedding cakes in even numbered boxes
∞ Towels to the groom’s parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties and siblings
∞ Red packet for the groom’s parents to buy shoes/skirt
∞ Chinese lettuce (生菜 ShengCai) to symbolize lively and abundance of descendants
∞ Chinese spring onion (葱 Cong) for wishes of financial wealth as it sound similar to ‘plentiful’
Bride’s dowry (嫁妆) usually include:
The dowry is a display of the bride’s family love for their daughter and blessing from the bride’s parents to their daughter and future son-in-law. It also signifies that their daughter has grown up and is ready to fulfill the role as a wife. Composed of mostly daily necessities for the new home for the new couple to start a blissful marriage, the dowry may be delivered together with the return gifts on betrothal day or may deliver it on another auspicious date before the wedding day. Each item symbolize a special meaning and are blessings to the couple for an everlasting marriage, and a prosperous family lineage.
∞ Tea set, to be used to serve tea to the groom’s parents and elders on the wedding day to represent the couple’s gratitude and respect for their elders
∞ Baby off-spring bucket set 子孙桶 (set of baby potty, bathtub, face washbasin in red) to bless the couple with healthy babies
∞ Pair of bedside lamps (子孙登 ZiSunDeng) for healthy offspring
∞ Set of 2 bowls, spoon, chopsticks and cup to represent abundance of food and drinks, good fortune and prosperity
∞ 2 pairs of wooden clogs or bedroom slippers to represent smooth career advancement
∞ A sewing kit to represent the bride’s virtues and her ability to care for her husband and family
∞ Auspicious ruler to symbolize the bride’s ability to manage the household and to bless the couple with great wealth
∞ ‘Yuan Qian’, also known as destiny charm to bless the couple with family bliss
∞ Wedding umbrella to represent the bride’s parents hope that their daughter will be well cared for with a big house to live in, and to ward off any inauspicious or clashing elements
∞ Other items include bed sheets, pillows, bolsters, comforter, blankets, toothpaste, toothbrushes, mirror, comb, towels and new clothing.
• Selection of Wedding Date and Auspicious Time (择吉日)
An auspicious date and time will be selected by the fortune telling master according the bride and groom's, and their family's birth dates. More details on Wedding Taboos page.
Installation of bridal bed (安床)
To bless the couple with good health, abundance of fortune and offspring, a good fortune woman (one whose husband and children are all alive and has many grandchildren) will install the new bridal bed at an auspicious date and time before the wedding day, usually the week before it. The good fortune woman will move the bed slightly to symbolize installation, and will make the bed with the new set of bridal bed linen. Red packets with ‘Yuan Qian’ (destiny charm) will also be placed at each corner of the bed to symbolise blessing of wealth and prosperity for the couple.
The traditional bridal bed sheets were bright red or pink with embroidered dragon and phoenix in gold threads or flowers like peonies. Today modern couples prefer designs like hearts and roses, and softer colours such as pink or lavender. Lace bed sheet sets adding an air of romance to the special day is another popular choice. However, mourning colours such as black, blue, grey and chrysanthemums flower designs should be avoided as they are commonly used for funerals.
After making the bed, the good fortune woman will leave on the bridal bed a plated filled with a pair of tangerines or oranges, dried red dates, dried longans, dried lily bulbs, dried lotus seeds, dried persimmons, sprigs of pomegranate leaves and two red packets. The tangerines and red packets are for good fortune. The sweet dried red dates, dried longans and dried persimmons will bless the marriage with sweetness and happiness (甜甜蜜蜜). The lily bulbs stands for hundred years of harmony (百年好合), while the lotus seeds (莲子) and pomegranate (石榴) leaves bless the couple with fertility. The Chinese also believes that the pomegranate leaves have the supernatural power to ward off negative elements. Children, particularly boys, are also invited to roll and play on the bridal bed as an omen of fertility.
• Wedding Day
The Big Day has finally arrived. There is a whole array of activities involving both families for the entire day.