Tuesday, November 3, 2009


According to Chinese culture, the legendary King Fu Xi ()() and his sister and wife Nu Wa ()()  invented marriage. Marriage was the most important event in traditional Chinese family life before 1949. Young couples did not marry out of free choice. When a man fell in love with a woman, his parents, if they wished him to marry her, would send a matchmaker to the potential bride's parents. Marrying for love was customary only in southern China. Among the Hans it was customary for families to negotiate through a matchmaker (usually a woman).[1] The contract that both sides signed committed them to making the marriage take place. The families of the bride and the groom generally shared economic interests and interests of reputation.  When both the bride and groom came from ruling families, the marriage was a means to ensure peace between two nations.

The Chinese believed in fate. Legend has it that the gods would tie an invisible red lace around the ankle of the son of one family and the daughter of another family, who are to marry some day. As time passes, they become attracted to each other by this tie without even being aware of it. When they meet, marriage is an inevitable result. Another legend tells of a girl whose hand-held fan falls into the water. She takes off her clothes to retrieve it and after a man sees her thus naked, she demands that he marry her immediately; for a woman was allowed to be seen naked only by her husband.

The traditional Chinese wedding was accompanied by six ceremonies that were celebrated on dates calculated by astrologists. In these ceremonies, the various gods and ancestors were informed of the match and asked for their blessings.

In order to know if the bride and groom were compatible, the parents of the couple would write their eight characters ()()[2] on a paper and put it on the family altar. If within three days no disaster befell, this would mean that the couple was well-matched.

In the first ceremony, an official marriage proposal was made. The parents of the future groom would seek out a girl as their future daughter-in-law and then would find a matchmaker who would present the proposal officially to the girl's parents. If her parents did not oppose the match, the matchmaker would ask to know the eight characters of the girl in order to ensure the compatibility of the couple. If an astrologer found the couple to be compatible, they would then pass on to the next ceremony.

In the second ceremony, the matchmaker would present the wedding presents given by the groom's family to the bride's family together with an engagement letter to the bride's family. The presents usually included a white goose, tea, lotus seeds, red beans, green legumes, red dates, oranges, pomegranates, wedding cakes, coconut, wine, and a money box, as well as other gifts according to local customs and the family's wealth. The cakes were put in boxes and on each of these boxes were written in golden ink the characters ()(), meaning "double happiness".

In the third ceremony the marriage proposal was received. The bride's father would answer the marriage proposal in a letter. This letter, addressed to the groom's father, was put in a small box and sent to him by the matchmaker along with the boxes received from the groom's father, containing some of the cakes that were returned to him.

In the fourth ceremony, which took place about two and a half weeks before the wedding, presents were exchanged between the families of the bride and the groom. Presents that were agreed upon in advance by the families were sent to the bride and her family. These included lacquered boxes, on which again were written the characters ()()) meaning double happiness). The boxes were filled with exotic foods, sweetmeats, wine, expensive tea, gold coins, hairpins, earrings, bracelets, beads, silk, bride's clothing and a whole roasted pig. The bride's family would send back several boxes with some of the cakes sent by the groom's family, while adding food of their own. Parts of the roasted pig would be returned too, including the head and the rear with the legs, to symbolize that everything has a beginning and an end. Bed linen for the future mother-in-law of the daughter would be sent as well. The groom would receive from the bride's family an official robe and a moneybag with coins. The returned cakes would be given to friends and relatives, thus apprising them of the approaching wedding.

In the fifth ceremony, the date of the wedding would be decided upon after consulting an astrologer. The matchmaker would bring the bride's family a letter sent by the groom's father, in which the wedding date was written, but before handing it to the bride's father she would ask him to choose a date for the wedding. He would politely relinquish the honor and leave it to the groom's father. The matchmaker would then present him with the date already decided upon by the groom's father.

Two weeks before the wedding the bride-to-be would remain isolated with her sisters, her friends and women servants, who would express their deep sorrow over her leaving the family. They would give her books to guide her in her new life with her husband in his parents' house.

The groom, dressed in magnificent clothes, would wait with his relatives in the room containing the ancestors' tablets. He and his relatives would bow down before the tablets, burn incense and inform the ancestors that the groom was about to get married. The master of the ceremony would ask the groom's father to sit in the place of honor designated for him. The groom would bow down before his father, and receive from him a glass of wine. Before drinking the wine he would pour a few drops in front of the ancestors' tablets and then bow down four times before his father. The father would ask him to bring his wife to their home. The son would then send people to bring the bride or go himself to bring her.

A similar ceremony would take place in the bride's house. Like the groom, the bride would receive a glass of wine from her father. Kneeling before her father, she would pour a few drops of wine in front of the ancestors' tablets. Then, she would taste the wine and her father would tell her to obey her husband's parents. Her mother would put a wreath of flowers on the daughter's head and a veil that would cover her face. She would tell the daughter to be good to her husband and send her to the groom's house.

The people from the groom's side would carry the bride in a sedan chair decorated with red and golden silk. The groom's friends would walk, sing and play music in front of the bride, carrying flags and lamps. Upon reaching the groom's house, the bride would be received with fire crackers in order to chase away any bad spirits. One of the groom's friends would give the groom the key to the sedan chair. The groom would carry the bride in his arms over a fire that was set on the doorstep for purification. The bride would be led to the living room of the family; there she would remain all day in her wedding dress, not allowed to leave the room until the night.

 The sixth ceremony was held in front the ancestors' tablets. Incense was burnt, candles were lit and offerings of food, tea and wine were placed on the altar. Here the groom would remove the veil from the bride's face and see her for the first time. The bride would kneel in front of him, meaning symbolically that from then on he would rule her. The bride and groom would kneel together in front of the gods of heaven and earth. Together they would worship heaven and earth, the house gods and the spirits of the ancestors. They would drink wine from small porcelain cups bound together by a red lace. This signified the end of the ceremony. A document written on high-quality red paper attested to the groom having married the bride. The fathers of both the bride and the groom were also mentioned in the document, which was signed by the groom, the bride and witnesses.

After the wedding the newlyweds would be led to the bedroom, where they would pray to the Duke of Bed and the Lady of Bed – two spirits that protect the couple in bed, to bless them with many sons. 

After the prayer a tea ceremony would be held. The bride would serve tea with sweetmeats and bow down in front of her husband's family members in the following order: the grandfather from the father's side, the grandmother from the father's side, the grandfather from the mother's side, the grandmother from the mother's side, uncles, aunts, in-laws from the father's side and, at the end, the other relatives in no special order.

At this point a meal would be served to the family and guests. The shy blushing bride would not participate in the banquet but remain in her bedroom. The happy parents of the groom would receive the blessings.  The guests would praise the beauty of the bride and would joke with the groom.

The bride and groom both wore special clothing for their wedding. The bride's gown was red since red is considered in China a lucky color and a symbol of fertility. The gown would be adorned with golden phoenix patterns to symbolize the bride, and chrysanthemum and peony patterns to symbolize wealth and good luck. The bride's head would be crowned with a phoenix crown and head covering decorated with feathers and pearls. A red veil covered her face on her way to her new husband's house. The groom was less elegant. He would wear a deep blue robe embroidered with a dragon pattern, and over it a black silk cloak. His hat was black with red fringes. White flowers were avoided at a wedding ceremony because white is the color of mourning in China.

On the third day after the wedding, the bride and the groom would visit the bride's parents and bring them presents, including a whole roasted pig. Some of the cakes, with the head and two hind legs of the pig, would be returned to the couple to take back to their home.

Every man was expected to marry and have children. Homosexuality was not considered as a good enough reason to avoid marriage. A married life that added sons to the family was considered a happy one.

 In traditional China a man was allowed to marry only one woman, but he could buy concubines of a class lower than that of his wife, although only rich men could afford concubines. His wife however, could expel a concubine without consulting him. Each of these women had her own small house where she would receive the husband. A wife who did not have sons was expected to ask her husband to take a concubine, and if she did not agree to do so she was considered a bad wife. 

The concubine was considered as the servant of the legal wife and had to obey her; while any children of the concubine were considered as the children of the legal wife, with a duty to respect her more than they respected their biological mother. They had to mourn her death as they would mourn their own mother's death. A concubine, considered as her husband's property, was never allowed to leave him. Although her husband could expel her if he did not want her any longer, usually, afraid of her family's vengeance, he would not do so. The husband was not allowed to give his concubine at home a higher position than that of his wife.  If a man did so, he would be forced to restore his wife's superiority over the concubine.

In traditional China a man could divorce his wife for various reasons. During the Tang (táng)   dynasty (618-907 CE), there were seven legal reasons for doing so. First – if the wife did not give birth to a son, second – if she committed adultery, third - if she was too chattering (i.e. gossiped with the neighbors about family matters), fourth - if she stole something, fifth – if she was obsessively jealous, sixth - if she was severely ill,  and seventh – if she did not respect her husband's parents.  According to the same law, the husband could be expelled from the home if he insulted his wife's ancestors or murdered one of her extended family members. Any violent act by the husband against his wife could enable her to expel him. Three conditions prevented divorce: if the wife did not have a relative who would take her into his home, if she had mourned either of her husband's deceased parents (for three years after each death) and if he had been poor when they married and became rich during their marriage.

Couples usually married following an engagement period, but there were also kidnap marriages and marriages resembling a contract of sale. Women were kidnapped by men and forced to marry them. A man and woman who had remained together overnight had to marry even though they may not have had sexual relations. In a marriage that was implemented as a contract of sale, the daughter was sold to a man to be his wife. This would happen in families in debt that desperately needed money. Sometimes the family would give their daughter to their creditors' family.

In southern China it was customary for a girl who came of age to marry to invite her suitors to present themselves in front of the veranda of her house on a certain day. She would then throw a ball towards them and the one who caught it would marry her.  The favorite day for this ceremony was on the 15th day (full moon) of the eighth lunar month, when the Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated (also called "the Moon Festival"). On this day girls would go into the fields to pick melons, believing that this would bring them a marriage blessed with male descendants.

Among Chinese people, the way lovers express their love in public differs from that customary in the West. Until recently it was forbidden to kiss in public. Students who were caught doing so would be expelled from the university. Another custom of Chinese lovers, differing from the West, is that of the use of words that express family relations. The woman, when addressing her lover, calls him "big brother" ()(), and the man addresses his lover as "little sister" (mèi)(mèi). It is customary between lovers not to cut a pear () because the word () is a homonym of the word () that signifies "separation".

The transition from traditional China to modern China brought about some changes in the marriage customs. Until the 20th century parents used to arrange the marriage of their children, men could have many wives (concubines), widows were not allowed to remarry, and wives could demand divorce only under certain conditions (already mentioned).

When the Communists gained power in 1949 they set out to uproot such traditional family values as filial piety, respect for the elderly, brotherhood and fidelity in marriage. The message was that loyalty to the Communist party precedes loyalty to the family. With the encouragement of the authorities, children rebelled against their parents and women rebelled against their husbands when the latter did not accept the ideas of Communism. However, the authorities did promote the rights of couples who established families. The marriage laws enacted in 1950, a few months after the foundation of the People's Republic of China, aspired to democratic marriages based on the free choice of the spouses, equal rights for men and women, and securing the interests of women and children.

In present-day China there is a ban on blind matchmaking. The law demands that both spouses declare that they are getting married of their own free choice. In 1951 polygamy was banned by the Communists, who considered it a Capitalistic aberration.

In 1980 several changes were made to the marriage laws. Likewise, births were limited to one child per family, in an attempt to control the growth of the population. In the new amendment, divorce cases are to be brought to a people's court that tries to settle marital disputes. Only if this court finds it impossible to rehabilitate the marriage, will the couple be allowed to divorce. Changes in the law refer also to the division of property, with mutual agreement between husband and wife. If there is no mutual agreement the court will decide, preferring the interests of the wife and children. Following these amendments, the Chinese people have developed greater self-awareness, and divorce is no longer considered as shameful or damaging to society.

Following the changes in the marriage laws and the changes in society, the moral basis on which the family is founded has passed from the family to the individual. While in the past the family was considered as a social unit, and the common belief was that a family's stability is an indication of the stability of society as a whole, in present-day China the emphasis is on the happiness of the individual, and marriage is considered a private matter. People no longer force themselves to remain in an unhappy marriage and are not discriminated against if they divorce. Many couples choose to live together and prefer not to marry.

Though nowadays there are many places where one can find a spouse, such as in the work place, at school, at parties or on the Internet, in China, in addition to these, there is still the traditional way - in the bosom of nature. Every Sunday people can be found in the parks looking for spouses for their sons, for their daughters, or for themselves. The parents present their children's photographs and exchange information. They do so because their children themselves are too busy and have no time to look for a spouse.



A broken mirror restored

Said of lovers who separated and happily reunited.

This is based on the following story:

In the Southern and Northern dynasties period (420-589 CE)  a clever and beautiful princess named Le Cheng ()(chāng)  and her husband Xu Deyan  ()()(yán)   lived in the State of Chen (chén) and loved each other very much. Their state became endangered after being invaded by Sui (suí)dynasty battalions, and they sensed that it would soon be overrun and they would have to leave their palace and live in exile. They were afraid that in the chaos that would follow these events they would lose contact with one another, so they broke a mirror, symbolizing the unity of a husband and wife, into two pieces. Each of them kept half of the mirror. Their plan was that each of them would take their half of the mirror to the fair that takes place during the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month, hoping to reunite. Upon their reunion, the mirror would be restored. 

A short time after breaking the mirror their premonitions came true. In the chaos of the war, the wife lost contact with her husband. She was taken to the minister Yang Su's   (yáng)()   house and became his concubine. When Xu Deyan went to the Lantern Festival he took with him his half of the mirror, hoping to find his wife there. At the fair he found the other half of the broken mirror in the hands of a servant, who was about to sell it. He immediately recognized the mirror and asked the servant about his wife. After hearing what his wife had gone through, tears flowed down his cheeks. He wrote to his wife a song on her half of the mirror: "You left me with a broken mirror. The mirror returned but it is impossible to see your reflection in it. Only the shining moon can be seen". The servant gave the half mirror back to Princess Le Cheng, who after hearing that her husband was alive, cried for days, thinking that they would never reunite. Minister Su heard about Le Cheng's husband and understood that she could never love him, the minister; so he sent servants to find Xu Deyan and brought about the reunion of the couple.     



First, get married, then fall in love; first fall in love [and] then get married

The first one relates to traditional marriage, and the second to modern marriage.


Marriage made in heaven



Without matchmakers on earth there will be no marriage [just as] without clouds in the sky, there will be no rain



Cuts the axe's handle

This is used as a synonym to "matchmaker". It derives from the Book of Songs (shī)(jīng) , where it is written: "How will you mold an axe without an axe? How can you marry a wife?  It is impossible without a matchmaker".



Jia Baoyu marries – not his loved one

This is used to describe a man who is in love with one woman but marries another. It derives from the Romance of the Western Chamber 西()(xiāng)()[1] that narrates the story of Jia Baoyu who married Bao Chai (bǎo)(chāi)rather than Lin Daiyu (lín)(dài)(),  whom he really loved.



Without lies there is no matchmaking



Ye Gong loves dragons

This is used to describe someone who pretends to love and admire what he really fears. It is expressed in the following story:

In the Spring and Autumn period (476-770 BCE) there was a rich man named Ye Gong ()(gōng), who lived in the State of Chu (chǔ)(guó)and loved dragons very much. His whole house was decorated with dragons. Dragons were painted on the walls and carved in reliefs on the columns. Likewise, they were embroidered on his clothes. When the heavenly dragon heard about Ye Gong's love for dragons, he was very excited and decided to visit him in his house. When he entered the house through the window, with his tail spreading across the entire room, Ye Gong saw him, panicked and fled. From then on, the people knew that Ye Gong loved dragons only in pictures and reliefs - but not in reality.



Life with love is happy [while] life for love is stupid



The one who really loves his daughter, will love his son-in-law [as] the one who loves the flower will love its flowerpot 

In English they say:

Love me love my dog.

A similar idea is expressed in the proverb: 


The one who loves the house, loves the bird inside it as well 



Let us be two birds flying wing to wing in the sky, and two trees with branches interlocked on earth 

A blessing that is used by lovers to express their love for one another.

Grow old together in harmony
(bái)(tóu)- literally: white head, meaning old age.
 The expression is used to wish newlyweds a long and happy life together. 

In the eyes of a man, his loved one is Xi Shi 西()(shī)
In the eyes of the lover, his loved one is beautiful.
This derives from a famous Chinese love story from the fifth century BCE, in the Spring and Autumn period.
According to this story, a minister in the State of Yue (yuè) advised his king, Ke Jian ()(jiàn),  to send a beautiful woman named Xi Shi as a present to his enemy Fu Cha ()(chà), the king of the State of Wu () , in order to distract him. The conspiracy was successful and the State of Yue won its war against the State of Wu.
Marriage is the tomb of love

In French they say:

Aujourd'hui marrié demain marré.
Literally: Today married tomorrow sad.
Toujours amoueaux, jamais marié
Literally: Always in love, never married.
Plum flower bud and bamboo horse
An innocent love between a boy and girl.
This idiom is used to describe friends from childhood.

The seventh day in the seventh lunar month – the shepherd meets the weaving girl
                                      Said of lovers who seldom meet.
This idiom is based on a legend that tells the story of Zhi Nu (zhī)() (literally: the weaving girl) and Niu Lang  (niú)(láng) the  shepherd, who together represent two stars in the sky. The legend appears in the Book of Songs (shī)(jīng)  (written between the 12th and 7th century BCE). In the Han dynasty, a more detailed version of their love story appeared. According to one of the versions, Zhi Nu was the daughter of the Emperor of Heaven, and she embroidered the clouds with golden thread to dress the sky. The Emperor of Heaven, who saw her loneliness, married her to Niu Lang, the shepherd who dwelled at the other end of the Milky Way. Her love made her forget her weaving work, however, and so the emperor ordered the shepherd to return to the eastern end of the Milky Way. The couple was allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the lunar month. Magpies, with their wings, formed a bridge for them in the sky.

[Even if] seas will dry and rocks will crumble, [I will always be faithful to you]
A declaration of love between lovers.

Grow old together in harmony
(bái)(tóu)- literally: white head, meaning old age.
 The expression is used to

Grow old together in harmony
(bái)(tóu)- literally: white head, meaning old age.
 The expression is used to wish newlyweds a long and happy life together. 
wish newlyweds a long and happy life together. 


[1] This book was written by the playwright Wang Shifu (wáng)(shí)()  (c.1260-1336 CE) in the Mongolian Yuan (1271-1368 CE) dynasty to entertain the court of the emperor.

[1]During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) marriage without matchmaking was illegal. 
[2] ()() are the eight characters that mark the hour, day, month and year of birth. Two characters represent each of these data.

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