Ask the Yangxifu: A Big, Fat, Traditional Chinese Wedding?

Western woman and Chinese man in a Chinese wedding

Ana asks:

I have a question about weddings. I am in my late twenties and recently engaged to my Chinese-American boyfriend,which I am really excited about.

But the wedding worries me. Initially I wanted a simple ceremony. I was raised Christian but he wasn’t, but I wouldn’t insist on a church. just maybe a simple ceremony then banquet with friends, some photos outdoors, etc. But when I suggested it to my boyfriend, he said his parents would never agree to it (his parents are from China), that they expect a big traditional Chinese wedding. I heard Chinese weddings can be very elaborate,exhausting with a lot of drinking, more than one dress,lots of guests etc. Seems overwhelming and not my style!! I haven’t brought it up in front of his parents but I feel kinda stuck now. I just really don’t want all this fuss and don’t understand why we cant make it simpler. I’m not sure I can survive a huge Chinese weddings. What should I do?

——

Dear Ana,

Congratulations on your engagement!

We come from a culture that celebrates the wedding as a reflection of the bride’s style, taste and personality. But, on Chinese weddings, you must understand — it’s not about you, it’s about the family.

In China, the wedding is a reflection of the family. Chinese weddings are often enormous, extravagant to-dos because it makes the family look better — or, in other words, gives them good face.

The wedding can also reflect the status of the son or daughter getting married. For example, in my husband’s hometown in the countryside, if someone has at least graduated from college — meaning that they left their village, and are on the road to success — they must marry in a place outside of the countryside (i.e. a hotel), which demonstrates their position. No wonder my in-laws refused to let my husband — working/studying in the US — marry me in their countryside home (as I had originally suggested).

If your Chinese fiancee’s family is traditional, you’re going to have to just take a deep breath and do the wedding they want. That means you’ll have to attend probably two banquets that day, spend most of the evening toasting other guests (instead of eating), and put up with some slightly naughty wedding games.

That said, there are ways to simplify things or negotiate them to your tastes.

Concerned about the banquet food? So was I — I’m a vegan and wanted an all-vegan banquet. Unfortunately, as my husband told me, that would be insulting to the guests, who expect to indulge on expensive carnivorous delicacies. The compromise? We special-ordered vegetarian dishes for my table (too bad I had no time to eat).

You don’t have to drink, as long you as keep up appearances. My Chinese husband and I have notoriously low alcohol tolerances — so we had one of his friends fill our liquor glasses with spring water. Everyone thought we spent the evening downing shots of baijiu.

Who says you have to have multiple dresses? I know of one Western woman engaged to a Chinese man who dreaded having to wear more than one wedding dress. After some discussion with her inlaws, they agreed to let her wear only one qipao for the entire wedding.

Your inlaws may welcome your input on decorations for the wedding, as mine did.

So, talk to your fiancee and find out what, if anything, you can change.

Or, you could put your personality into a separate ceremony or banquet. Traditionally, the lunch banquet is held at the bride’s home or with the bride’s family in another location — it is usually much smaller, and just with close relatives and friends. That might be your opportunity to be you. Find out if you can plan it, and how much freedom you’ll have to personalize it.

If your future in-laws don’t leave you much room to customize the lunch banquet, then see if you can plan a separate, smaller ceremony that reflects you. As always, check with your fiancee, first, to make sure you’re not insulting anyone.

Whatever happens, remember — the wedding is an opportunity to create goodwill with his family. The best wedding gift you could ever give your future in-laws is your understanding (with a close second being stamina). Good luck!

——-

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23 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: A Big, Fat, Traditional Chinese Wedding?

  • February 12, 2010 at 5:14 am
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    That’s great advice about the wedding. I would add that as you do your wedding planning, don’t forget to clarify your expectations about the honeymoon.

    My Chinese husband and I planned a honeymoon and in my mind it was going to be a wonderful chance for the two of us to relax together after all the wedding hoopla.

    In his mind it was just another trip, and he invited his mom.

    By the time he told me it was too late to un-invite her so it was indeed the three of us. That was when I realized once and for all that when your partner and you don’t have mutual cultural norms, you have to talk through everything and don’t assume anything.

    Thankfully my mom-in-law is super and the three of us had fun. Maybe not the kind of fun I had initially envisioned but still fun. 🙂

    Reply
  • February 12, 2010 at 12:56 pm
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    Chinese weddings can be kind of fun too, if a bit exhausting. Although having a big banquet is important in order to give the family face, you really don’t have to worry about a lot of ceremony or formality — it is mostly eating and toasting. You will probably have to get up in front of the wedding banquet and perhaps say a few words. Traditionally you will pay respects to both sets of parents, to the ancestors, and to each other.

    We had our wedding in the village because my husband’s elderly father wouldn’t have made it to the city for the wedding and as far as I’m concerned country weddings are pretty fun! The food is great too, great homestyle country goodness. Of course Ana is in America so she won’t be having a wedding in China.

    For our wedding we incorporated some of our own traditions too. It is your big day also so I don’t think you should feel like you have to defer to the in laws about everything — if there are some traditions which you’d like to have at your wedding make your voice heard so you won’t feel like you’re just along for the ride at your own wedding. Or, like Jocelyn said, you could have your own smaller quieter ceremony after the big Chinese to-do.

    Congrats!

    Reply
  • February 12, 2010 at 3:50 pm
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    I was not already in any wedding ceremony in china, but further to above post, I think Chinese ceremony is very similar with Persian Ceremony . Actually I hate very big wedding parties. but I have to see in Future, for sure , I have to follow up my wife family in china (my future Chinese wife :D) . this post was very useful for me, I hope i can get more experience from you.

    Reply
  • February 12, 2010 at 11:33 pm
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    haha, You guys are really really interesting. First of all, a little intro abt myself. I am in my early 20s, pure pure pure chinese man from beijing, studying in canada for almost 6 years. so yes, i kindda know both sides.

    For the wedding, girl, no worries at all!! we, chinese, have very very different wedding traditions depending on at where you hold the ceremony, what the chinese family background is, like education, job, and so on.

    My best advise is that ask ur husband every procedures in the party because every step has its story… such as calling ur mom-in-law actually “mother” to mark you and her become one family, then give them cups of tea to mark that they accept you as a member of their famiy, it goes on and on…..

    After all, what u gonna find out is that they are pretty much teaching you what they expect to do in that marriage. haha, weired huh? You are expected to have a baby(traditionally assumed a boy) as quick as possible while you guys are responsible for a “quality gurantee” of the baby.

    Yet, there is really no RULES for what you have to be done. So, just talk to the family, everything gonna be alrite.

    BTW, i really really enjoy in this blog cuz i really really experience in toronto that misunderstanding abt Asians, in china particular, is HHHHUUUUUGGGGGEEE!!

    Reply
    • February 15, 2010 at 4:45 pm
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      @Melanie,

      Thanks so much for the comment! Wow, talk about misunderstandings, and different expectations — realizing you had to share that honeymoon with your MIL must have been so awkward. But I applaud you for having the good grace to get through it and have a good time in the end (even if it wasn’t the honeymoon you expected).

      @Jessica,

      Thanks for sharing some of your tips, advice and experience in your own wedding. Man, I wish I could have done it just like you, at home in the countryside — I’m envious! Anyhow, your remarks definitely show that there is leeway, sometimes more than you think, in making that wedding more your own.

      @Roueen,

      Thanks for adding your words to the conversation — and I’m always fascinated to see the ties between your culture and in China.

      @YZY,

      Thanks for weighing in, and sharing some of your own advice, as a Chinese man. It’s true, you really do have to talk with the family. I’m so glad to hear from you, and glad you enjoy the blog. 🙂

      Reply
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  • February 15, 2010 at 11:28 pm
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    Ana,

    My experience is different since I am a foreign man that married a Chinese woman, but feel that since everyone’s wedding day is the most important day of their lives, it is necessary to repeatedly mention to your in-laws this point and make sure you are proactive in the planning and let them know (as well as your fiance) what YOU want. Bottom line is if your husband/wife loves you, you can both have the wedding you want.

    Each family is different just like in every country. When my wife and I were married, we compromised. I explained to my in-laws that their daughter was not marrying a Chinese man and we were getting married in China, not my home country (US), thus my parents and friends would need to travel. My wife and I also explained the wedding custom that usually occurs in my family and mentioned on numerous occasions what we want and expect. This allowed us to have the ceromonies we both wanted.

    My wife’s hometown is about an hour from the city we live in China, so my wife’s parents suggested that we have the lunch ceremony in her hometown and then the dinner closer to our home (which was a huge and pleasant surprise to me). This made the arrangement more convenient for my parents and friends from out of town and we were able to have the Chinese ceremony at lunch and the Western ceremony at dinner.

    Also, in regards to the drinking….I have lived in China for eleven years and do not know any bride/groom (ok, one Western groom) who drank alcohol during the ceremony (we used sprite and everyone knew it)……..but definitely when we were finished from going table to table.

    Good luck!

    Reply
    • February 16, 2010 at 4:14 pm
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      Thanks so much for the comment, RC, and for sharing your experience.

      Thanks also for correcting me on the alcohol — I think you’re right — especially for women in China (as most women tend not to drink, and drinking excessively can be frowned upon if you’re a woman).

      Reply
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  • February 19, 2010 at 1:42 am
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    What kind of “slightly naughty wedding games” might she have to endure? I’ve only seen/specifically heard of a couple, though I know there’s a lot out here. What have you witnessed/heard of?

    Reply
    • February 20, 2010 at 1:00 am
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      Hi Joel, thanks for stopping by!

      Here’s what I experienced — one involved a piece of “meat” hanging by a string that I had to nibble on (guess what that stood for?)…I ended up not having to do it b/c I’m a vegan and it threw a wrench in the whole game. In another, my husband and I had to use our mouths to fish chopsticks out of a beer bottle, but that wasn’t as naughty.

      My husband’s favorite was at a countryside wedding, where they forced the bride to eat a “strategically placed” banana.

      Reply
  • February 21, 2010 at 10:00 pm
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    My parents dont really care too much about a huge wedding, but some do, however, being a non Chinese you have certain advantages, for example, the bride normally have to be a good hostess for the wedding. If your non Chinese you are not expected to do this, you can just sit there and look pretty, (note: ppl will stare at you, not because you are weird, because you are pretty and they rarely see non Chinese girls dressed up in the traditional wedding dress). Let the man do all the work I say, muhahahahahaha, and enjoy the experience.

    Reply
    • February 22, 2010 at 12:48 am
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      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Andrew!

      You’re so right about the “you can just sit there and look pretty”. Reminds me of my wedding ceremony…I actually lost my voice the day of the ceremony, and my husband kept telling me “it doesn’t matter — everyone just came here to look at you.” And so they did. 😉

      Reply
  • March 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm
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    My husband and I got engaged in a Suzhou garden last year and surprised his family with it 😉 Some celebration dinners were held after the engagement and my husband and I got married in my home village in Sweden in October last year. We’re planning to arrange some kind of wedding dinner for his family in China in June when we go to China again. And fortunately his parents are with us about keeping it quite simple so it will most likely just be a dinner somewhere nice with the closest family 🙂

    Reply
    • March 9, 2010 at 3:58 pm
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      Thanks for sharing your engagement/wedding experiences, Jennie! That’s great that his family seems to agree it should be a simple affair in China.

      Of course, my husband’s family said they wanted it to be simple (简朴) — but it was an elaborate affair, from my perspective. And they tried to tell me, it was simpler (because, traditionally, countryside weddings used to take 3 days). I guess perspective — and expectations — count when it comes to your wedding. 😉

      Reply
  • September 13, 2010 at 8:01 am
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    Jocelyn, I think its great you were brave and went ahead and appeased the cultural divide by participating in such a wedding. I’m sure your husband was appreciative. I would have been scared too. This type of thing always makes me wonder though about cultural traditions. Do we not have any in the U.S? Seems like we are always the ones conforming to appease a tradition that must be greater than our own? Is it because we just don’t value tradition as much?

    I’m not saying its bad, I still commend you but when I read the answer and they said its not about you, it’s about the family I know a lot of girls who would of said GTH. It’s my day. hmm

    Reply
    • September 13, 2010 at 11:13 pm
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      Thanks for the comment, Michael. You’re good to question why we should always conform to another tradition. For me, because I’d been raised Catholic, but left the church and, as a result, could never get married in the way my parents did, I just decided to throw myself full-swing into a Chinese wedding.

      That said, I absolutely left much of my personal stamp on the wedding. I chose and designed my own dresses. I helped choose the food, the photography (I even had them do the very unorthodox job of photographing us throughout the day, candidly, which most photography studios do not do), the flowers, the wedding car design, even the “after party” (which was karaoke, one of my most favorite things to do). So I’d like to say that, while I definitely threw his family a LOT of bones and gave them a wedding they appreciated, I also enjoyed a wedding that I felt was as much my own.

      I think it definitely depends on the family. But two separate marriages is a frequent choice for many couples like myself, and it’s a good compromise — a way to allow both traditions to stand equal.

      Reply
  • September 14, 2010 at 10:23 pm
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    Ah, I would have left the Catholic Church too so I can’t blame you there. Of course I was raised in a Christian Church so my values were set early as happens in a lot of cases. Honestly being a guy, I would just conform with what the girl wanted and if my bride was Chinese I wouldn’t mind crossing over cultural traditions. I actually hesitate more when its crossing religious traditions, like if she was catholic and wanted to get married there.

    Reply
    • September 14, 2010 at 10:58 pm
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      Thanks for the reply, Michael.

      You definitely raise some interesting questions, and make me wonder if this isn’t representative of one of the issues that seems to keep Western women and Chinese men apart — the idea that, in some cases, you have to consider conforming to some family traditions (such as w/ weddings). I might just have to write more about this.

      Reply
  • September 15, 2010 at 7:25 am
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    I look forward to reading it, you have a great blog here and interesting topics. Keep up the good work and I just followed you on twitter 🙂

    Reply
  • November 4, 2010 at 5:19 pm
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    This is a great blog and I thought I’ll chime in, coming from Singapore where there are quite a number of inter-racial marriages, and as an ethnic Chinese who married a white Canadian husband. I don’t think that there is any need for one culture to conform for the other. The wedding affords you a huge opportunity to show respect to and gain insights into the other culture that you are marrying into.

    With inter-racial marriages here, it is very common to have two types of ceremonies. A friend of mine got married first in a Hindu temple ceremony with a buffet reception at the temple, and then the next day had a Catholic ceremony and sit down dinner. So both cultures were embraced, which I think is what weddings are about! In my case, my husband was completely happy to have a Chinese wedding. I was happy to have another wedding in Canada for my husband’s family but as they are laidback folk, they said there was no need.

    Jocelyn is right that a Chinese wedding is a celebration, not just for the couple but the family. Ana, this is why your husband is reluctant to budge on the issue; it is an emotional issue. You’ll find that generally it comes down to the banquet itself. You can probably eliminate mostly everything but the tea ceremony and banquet. And with your husband’s support and his family’s understanding, I think you can make further adjustments. When I got married, we cut out all the traditional rituals and the rounds of drinking, and my girlfriends designed only very gentle games to put my husband through. Everyone is much kinder and more understanding to foreigners. I still remind my husband that he got off easy 🙂

    Ana, your wedding preparations are probably already underway, but I would encourage you to talk through it with your fiance, if you haven’t yet. I totally agree with Jocelyn that I think you should hold a simple, private ceremony _before_ your wedding banquet. This is so that you don’t feel like your wedding has been eaten up by the banquet. Also, you should know that a chinese banquet does not need to be held on the “wedding day” itself. It can be held the next day, or even months after the civil/church ceremony. So there is no need to stress yourself out packing it all in on one day.

    Lastly, I sense that a lot of it is fear of the unknown. It could just be that you don’t know what to expect. Get your fiance to take you to a couple of Chinese weddings so that you can get familiar with them. My husband had similar concerns, and he ended up really enjoying the day and having a lot of fun.

    Reply
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