Why Your Chinese Family Wants You to Have a Wedding Banquet (Even if You Don’t)

When a friend told me she didn’t want to have a big wedding banquet in China, I could totally understand why.

After all, I’m the one who wrote about Why I Don’t Like Going to Wedding Banquets in China. I still have a “just say no” policy when it comes to Chinese wedding invitations. Just the mere suggestion of a wedding in China fills me with dread. The last thing I need is more non-vegan food I can’t eat, a room polluted with noxious secondhand smoke, and a raucous atmosphere that will leave me unsettled for the rest of the night.

In short, a good book at home beats a wedding banquet in China any day for me.

And to be sure, there was a time when I once hoped that my own wedding ceremony in China would have been different. Smaller. More intimate. Vegan food. A strict smoking ban. I envisioned this glorious countryside wedding at the family home, a delightful ceremony closer to nature and tradition than anything I’d seen in the cities.

Well, it didn’t happen that way.

Instead, I got a big, red banquet in a hotel with more than 150 guests in attendance. The only vegan dishes were prepared for me, on the side. And as for that smoking ban, as much as we tried enforcing it, it was kind of laughable when there were free cigarettes at every setting (typical for most wedding banquets in China).

In fairness to the family here, I should be clear about one thing – I was enormously grateful for the wedding banquet for a number of reasons.

Having a wedding in the US was pretty much an impossibility for my husband and me. So if we hadn’t had the ceremony in China, we wouldn’t have had anything at all. Furthermore, they shouldered all the costs of the wedding, which was incredibly generous of them. And in the process of planning the banquet, they allowed me and my husband to make a lot of decisions. We chose the décor for the stage/backdrop. We organized the karaoke afterparty. We decided on the flowers. We specifically requested those candid photos shot during the event. We even planned to let me sing “our song” during the ceremony (which would have happened, had I not lost my voice). In short, we were given a lot of leeway to lend a personal touch to the event.

But yes, if I had planned it all according to my wishes, like brides in America do, I would have had a completely different wedding banquet altogether. (And nobody would have gotten those free cigarettes at the table!)

It was my husband who helped me understand the reality in China – that wedding banquets matter not just to the bride and groom, but to the entire family. As I wrote in Why Your Chinese Wedding Ceremony Will Always Be Big, Fat and Loud:

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.

There’s also another important reason why the wedding banquet must go on – because many families don’t consider you married without it.

Even though my husband and I registered our marriage years before our wedding banquet, the family didn’t consider us married until we, as the Chinese say, had our “happiness wine”.

So yes, your Chinese family wants and expects a wedding banquet. While there are probably lots of things you can have a say on – from the flowers to the décor to even your photographers – the actual wedding banquet isn’t one of them. Not even close.

But I say, if you’ve got to do it, embrace the experience. And believe me, there are benefits to getting married over here. How about having more than one dress in your ceremony? Or getting your hair and makeup redone several times during the event? Or even having those stunning wedding/engagement photos done? Trust me, there’s lots of potential to enjoy the whole “princess” treatment here.

As for me, I don’t regret the way my wedding banquet turned out. Maybe it wasn’t the “perfect day” I imagined long ago, but that’s OK. After all, my husband and I honeymooned in that magical island of Bali.

Yeah, you can envy me now. 😉

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10 Replies to “Why Your Chinese Family Wants You to Have a Wedding Banquet (Even if You Don’t)”

  1. Wow! It sounded as though you had to endure a lot. I am glad that you had the wedding though to give your in-laws “face” and respect. You are now learning how to be a good Chinese wife. Congrats.

    1. It’s a very, very hard line to toe — making your in-laws happy and not making yourself a resentful martyr.

      But I’m with you on the tofu and a book.

    2. Oh, no, Fred. No. You did not just patronizingly tell Jocelyn she’s becoming a “good Chinese wife!”

      Those are fighting words. Or maybe just fraught. See Susan Blumberg-Kason’s book and bite your tongue.

  2. I was very lucky then that my parents in law didn’t do anything at my wedding haha. I chose the place and the food (which included several vegetarian options because I had a vegetarian friend attending). The food was different from the usual fare and the banquet was outdoors so I didn’t mind people smoking (although at first I thought about not putting cigarettes on the tables too but my husband insisted on that). I can proudly say my wedding was different from all the other Chinese weddings I’ve been to and everybody liked it!

  3. Bali is my favorite vacation place in the world. A friend and I vacationed there in the early ’70s when tourism was just getting started.

    We attended quite a few Chinese wedding banquets in the Philippines. They were always large and expensive. I remember eating pigeon a couple of times. One of Eugene’s Chinese friends was single, so I asked him why J never got married. He said the J’s father gambled away the family’s entire fortune, so J couldn’t afford to get married. J wasn’t very outgoing, so I suspect that had something to do with it too, but Eugene’s words did point to the importance for Chinese of a big, expensive wedding.

    1. Wow, that’s really cool you went to Bali in the early 1970’s! I would love to see your photos from your vacations, if you have them — would be interesting to see how it looked back then.

      That’s really sad about your husband’s friend J, but also quite consistent with Chinese expectations.

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