Ask the Yangxifu: Why Your Chinese Wedding Ceremony Will Always Be Big, Fat and Loud

(photo by kanegen via Flickr.com)

Grace asks:

I’m thinking of marrying my Chinese boyfriend. I don’t mind (except for the cost) of doing weddings in both the US and China. But which one for the “real” one?

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When you ask about the “real” ceremony, I’m assuming you’re envisioning one big, official ceremony and a second smaller and more intimate affair. But here’s the deal — regardless of what you’re imagining, I can guarantee that “small” and “intimate” will NEVER apply to the ceremony in China.

You can think of Chinese weddings literally as a family affair — a sort of public face that impacts the entire family, beyond you and your groom. And for Chinese families, good face comes from putting on the biggest, fattest, loudest possible affair. Reputation is everything here! After all no one wants guests to remember them as, say, the family who put on that small and pathetic little wedding banquet, or the family who served crappy food or booze. You get the point.

It’s no wonder, then, that often your fiancee’s parents and the rest of the family will have a hand in some, if not most, of the planning of that Chinese wedding ceremony. John’s family sure did. And the resulting ceremony often looks and feels something like this:

Chinese parents don’t like quiet weddings. They want a giant fucking banquet where they invite 400-700 people that you’ve probably never met before in your life.

That includes that cousin of an aunt that lives in China, your dad’s kindergarten friends that he hasn’t met up with since kindergarten, and that random guy that might be related to your family because there can’t possibly be that many people named “Lee” in the world, right?

They want noise, they want strangers, they want ecologically-unfriendly and inhumane soups to be served, and they want a spectacle. In movie terms, they want the kind of wedding like the one in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet.

Well, you’re forewarned, right?

Still, there’s good news for your budget. In China, it’s tradition for your guests to present you with hongbao filled with money as a wedding gift. In some parts of China, families will use some, if not all, of that money to pay for the wedding. Yes, I’ve actually heard of weddings in China that paid for themselves (but if you’re getting hitched in a huge, expensive city like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, you’re probably out of luck there).

But what if yours doesn’t? Or, what if your family wants you and your hubby to keep the hongbao yourselves? No problem — in China, paying for weddings often falls to the groom’s family (instead of the bride’s, which is true in the US, my home country). In my case, John’s family took care of all the wedding bills and even gave every RMB of hongbao to us.

Ultimately, what happens in the finance department depends on his family and and their local traditions — which vary from place to place. So go ahead, ask your fiancee. What financial support will his family provide for the wedding ceremony in China? Will the hongbao go towards the costs, or to you, or a little of both? Get some answers, and then you’ll get a sense for what your budget will be like for that US ceremony. If the money’s there, you might as well go all out and put on the wedding of your dreams in the US.

And remember that when it comes to having a “real” wedding, what’s “real” is relative. Most of us in the community have multiple wedding dates and multiple matrimonial memories. While it might mean you’re never quite sure which date is your wedding anniversary (like me), it’ll sure make for a hell of a story to tell your kids and their kids — about how you were, in the words of Tianjin Shannon, some of the “most married” people in your social circle.

(UPDATE: Updated the original headline on this post to add the word “wedding”)

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Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture (or Western culture)? Send me yours today.

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23 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Why Your Chinese Wedding Ceremony Will Always Be Big, Fat and Loud

  • February 15, 2013 at 2:19 am
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    Sweet! My Chinese wedding rant got quoted!

    Reply
  • February 15, 2013 at 7:41 am
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    This year when my bf’s mom gave me the red envelope she said that we should get married quickly (she mentioned marriage for the first time cause they finally met my parents during this Spring Festival) and have a big house 😉 Later when we were counting the money we got this year my bf said that marriage sucks cause you don’t get the red envelope any more but you have to give it to everyone else so we shouldn’t get married 😉

    Reply
  • February 15, 2013 at 7:52 am
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    BTW, my bf’s sister got married last year and there was no ceremony, just a dinner in a restaurant and there were like ten people invited cause my bf’s sister and her husband prefered to save the money and go for a trip to Yunnan later.

    Reply
  • February 15, 2013 at 8:12 am
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    I think saving the money for a few trips is ideal.. I’ve been to big weddings before (700-800). If you don’t have money , don’t do a big wedding.

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  • February 15, 2013 at 8:47 am
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    there can’t possibly be that many people named “Lee” in the world, right?

    White Lees and Chinese Lees…most common surname in the world…although I doubt you will see many (any?) white Lees in a Chinese wedding even here in the US.

    Reply
  • February 15, 2013 at 11:32 am
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    Stuff like this is why my wife and I are glad we eloped, between the potential for extended family drama and the fact that my father-in-law would try to invite everyone in the neighborhood. I guess we’ll see what happens when I go to finally meet the in-laws in person next year.

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    • February 15, 2013 at 4:37 pm
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      @Drew, my pleasure! That post of yours just perfectly captures the typical Chinese wedding…definitely echoes my own.

      @Barbara, wow, I’m surprised your bf’s sister got away with such a tiny affair! That’s definitely NOT the norm from what I’ve experienced and known in China. Although…I have heard that for some couples, the honeymoon destination is starting to emerge as a status symbol, which means that perhaps more couples are thinking about the vacation.

      @Bruce, I don’t disagree. Though I have heard of many families in China who will borrow money to make the wedding happen.

      @David, yep, there are certainly a lot of people named Lee out there! Though, yes, at Chinese weddings less likely to see white Lees. I thought it was interesting that Kim Lee, the white ex-wife of Li Yang, shared this surname w/ him.

      @Sbard, if you’re heading back to meet your inlaws next year, don’t be surprised if they insist on you throwing a banquet there. In Chinese culture, people often don’t consider a couple married until they have an actual wedding ceremony. Doesn’t matter if you have the marriage license and have been an official couple for years.

      Reply
  • February 15, 2013 at 5:33 pm
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    I’ve noticed a difference in type of wedding among my own family and family friends pre-&post-2000. My relatives who got married in the 80s and 90s had smaller affairs, usually just a large dinner with family. But weddings in the last 10-15yrs are more like what you described. One thing I found particularly strange was the casualness of dress at several of the weddings I’ve seen. At my cousin’s wedding last year, her maid of honor wore jeans and a t-shirt. Same thing with alot of the other guests…only the parents of the bride was dressed up! I saw guests in jeans, sweatpants, and various states of casualness. Is this just my family or has anyone noticed that in other Chinese weddings? What happened to dress pants and formal ware in China!?!?

    Reply
  • February 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm
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    Sounds similar to Russian wedding, that is the tradition of paying money to the married couple. My parents threw a wedding party for family only, although my sister invited her friends and coworkers to come.

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  • February 16, 2013 at 3:57 am
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    In big cities people tend to have smaller and more western-style wedding banquets, where in the country side you get more big noisy banquets (with loud fire crackers). Compared with western weddings Chinese weddings don’t have the religion element, and are mostly for entertaining guests and less of a “ceremony.”

    And don’t forget to get a glamor shots album after the wedding ceremony!

    Reply
  • February 16, 2013 at 9:09 am
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    Yes, it is true that you can borrow money from relatives. The red envelopes are there for a reason ,but sometimes guests put less money in the red envelopes so you will have a deficit. That’s when borrowed money is used.

    Reply
  • February 16, 2013 at 11:32 am
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    Sometimes couples give money to their guests too. It’s rather symbolic than a large amount of money but still…
    I’ve been at one tibetan wedding and got some money from the bride’s family too. It made me feel a bit guilty cause I arrived there with empty hands… But anyway, to me it was the best wedding ever, I’ve spent there two days, the ceremony was very touching, the feast was humble if one would compare it to modern chinese weddings but I’ve never ate such a delicious yak meat in my entire life, even the yak butter tea tasted great in the morning 😉 The most wonderful thing was that it was so authentic, those people didn’t care about the “face”, what others will think about them, they didn’t pretend that they are someone else. That wedding always will be a great memory despite the hangover and altitude sickness on the next day 😉 Unfortunately, I recall chinese weddings with a slight disgust cause they often try to be whiter then whites, imitate foreign customs without understanding them and the guests seem to come there just because they want to stuff their bellies with food. Once I was sitting next to a girl who didn’t knew the couple at all (she was a girlfriend of the groom’s classmate from primary school or sth like that) but she arrived to the wedding well prepared – with a bag full of lunch boxes to pack the food and another bag to pack the fruits. We managed to eat one orange with my bf before that girl grasped all of them and left without even saying “goodbye” to the bride and groom.

    Reply
  • February 16, 2013 at 4:02 pm
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    Maybe I’m getting abit old, but like other situations where the couple feels pressured to have a big/expensive wedding, hopefully the focus remains on the couple to enjoy their own wedding without anyone going into a financial hole.

    What I do like most about Chinese weddings (I’ve only been to North American ones.)..is the food and the fact that children are more often invited as part of the family at the banquets.

    Reply
  • February 16, 2013 at 9:28 pm
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    I don’t get the reason for big fat and loud wedding. I think it would be a family and close friends circle social event, plus couple get away for honeymoon. Why over spends for someone you barely know ?

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  • February 17, 2013 at 8:34 am
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    @Forest, let me answer your question. When each guest enters the restaurant, there will be people from the bride/groom’s side to drop down his/her name as record on a book. When the party is over, that book will be handed to the bride/groom’s family. When you or those guests who will have kids in the future and once they become adults and planning to get married , you will open that book to see who you are going to invite for your kid’s wedding.

    Reply
  • February 18, 2013 at 1:54 am
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    Remembering who gave what amount (hongbao) is also documented in the same way as mentioned above.

    At my friends brothers wedding, his father carried a note book and he’d document everyone’s name and the amount they gave.

    My question is in reciprocating do you give the same amount or more?
    Also more and more young Chinese (of marital age) don’t like giving hongbao due to the amount of money they have to give.

    It’s common for someone to give 1/2 their monthly wage to the bride and groom, they know they will “get it back” once they are married but even so they find it difficult; many say they’d prefer to give a gift as we do in Western weddings.

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  • February 18, 2013 at 8:20 am
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    Mira,

    You don’t have to give the same amount but within standard amount.

    Reply
    • February 18, 2013 at 9:47 am
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      @forest, the reason for such big to-dos is that weddings reflect back on the family, as I mentioned in the article above, and it is a kind of public face. It has long been tradition that, with weddings, the bigger and louder, the better. If you read any books on weddings of the past in China, you will find this to be true. For example, consider how people used to have long processions, w/ the bride carried in a sedan chair, musicians playing loud music to accompany her, and her dowry — everything from her trousseau and other furniture to even her chamberpot — on full display. And in the past, families would even borrow money to make their wedding as big and lavish as possible. Because such a wedding suggests wealth and importance, and it gives the family good face (which a smaller affair may not do). After all, if your wedding is drastically different from the norm in your region, your neighbors/community will talk (not necessarily in a good way) and it might be embarrassing to you.

      @mira, my mother-in-law told me you should always give at least the same amount in return.

      Reply
  • February 20, 2013 at 2:28 pm
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    Most people will give the same and some people will give more. It all depends on how well they know you. Prepare for the deficit like always then you’ll be fine.

    Reply
  • February 20, 2013 at 10:16 pm
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    This matches my recent experience. My husband and I are visiting his parents for the Spring Festival, and we began to talk about when the Chinese wedding would be. We had registered earlier this year, and I was thinking that the wedding would be in the summer or fall… imagine my surprise when my mother-in-law said she was actually planning it for next year, just after the Spring Festival! ^^ Lots of reasons were given, including that it’s unlucky to have a wedding during the Year of the Snake, Horse being better, that the banquet rooms at good hotels are booked for about a year in advance anyway so we have to book now for next year, that they have to make a guest list of several hundred people and choose the best time when most of them would be available to come, that they have to make preparations for the ceremony and food, etc.

    Additionally, my husband is still working on his thesis for his master’s degree and he is only now beginning to search for jobs. They said that it would be very embarrassing for them to have a wedding in the summer right after he graduated if, for some reason, he still hadn’t found a job by that time. Their guests would look down on them for letting their son get married without a job to support me and possible children, etc. Making the wedding ceremony next year gives him enough time to find a job before then so that when their friends ask them what their son does they can name a job title and company.

    I don’t mind these various Chinese traditions or ideas about how to do a proper wedding and save face with their friends. It’s part of the family and culture I’ve married into. 🙂 We’re also going to do at least a reception, if not another entire wedding, in the states next year for my family and friends who can’t afford to come to China (and that’s pretty much everyone). We wondered what day we should choose for our anniversary, and decided to settle on the day we registered, not either of the ceremonies. Although having multiple weddings is actually a good reason to have multiple celebrations throughout the year, I think… ^^

    Reply
  • February 20, 2013 at 11:47 pm
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    Been to quite a few weddings both in states and China. Chinese weddings are much less meaningful for the couple. The whole thing is planned for someone else, the family and relatives. In China, you are afraid to be invited to a wedding as a guest. It is a really expensive meal with your hongbao. It makes you feel like being robbed.
    Chinese wedding is more practical in every aspect. Western weddings help to create your own memories. You need to do both for your own sake. Wedding with a foreigner is bigger for show and tell.

    Reply
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