The Dengji Question: How Marriage in China Gets Confusing

Weeks after John and I became a legally recognized couple in China in late July, the pink pastel envelopes of misunderstanding — with return addresses from my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts — started pouring in:

Congratulations On Your Marriage!

To the Bride and Groom…

On Your Wedding Day…

“It’s not really a wedding,” I had told my father. “They call it dengji, or registering. It’s more symbolic, like an engagement.” I didn’t wear a bridal gown that day. There were no friends present to witness, and no gifts to receive. We didn’t even tell John’s family about it, until afterwards.

But I’d sent photos home to my dad, and they told another story. China’s national seal, flag, and an official podium with the words “Shanghai Marriage Registry Office” adorned the stage where John and I stood side by side. Across from us, a bureaucrat read our wedding vows, asking us to pledge to care for one another, and our parents. The whole thing screamed “wedding at the courthouse or justice of peace.”

So years later, after John and I came to the US, my American friends and relatives just didn’t understand our need to have a wedding. “Didn’t you already get married?” they might ask, as if I was trying to erase how I’d chosen shotgun eloping over a ceremony. Every year, around late July, we’d find the same well-intentioned pastel envelopes in our mailbox, feeling like another round of votes against our wedding hopes. Sometimes even I wondered if I’d wasted all that time and money getting three wedding dresses, now languishing in the back of our dusty wooden closet.

“My family doesn’t consider us married until we have the wedding ceremony,” John would reassure me. So, by the time we did have our ceremony, it didn’t matter that it was nearly three years after we had “registered.” John’s family welcomed us back home to China, to do the ceremony that I wanted, and they wanted. There was no confusion about it — this was our true wedding.

But I can’t say the same for my family in the US. After all, they still ask me what’s the date of our anniversary. 😉

Have your family or friends ever gotten confused over the “dengji question” — or other wedding/marriage customs in China?

9 Replies to “The Dengji Question: How Marriage in China Gets Confusing”

  1. Sometimes I wonder what this practice tells us about the relationship between the Chinese populace and the Chinese state… but all in all, I think it just points to the importance of social recognition of, well, just about anything: if it’s private and no one knows about it – or for that matter, if no one talks about it (see the last post about silence from a boyfriend) – it basically does not exist…

  2. Whoa, thanks for sharing, Jocelyn. I had no idea that marriages were like that in China. Are you allowed to have the ceremony before you get married?

    @Gerald, yeah it does seem that most Chinese care alot about how others in their social circle perceive themselves. marriage is much more of a wholesale family affair to them. good observation.

  3. My husband and I did the outrageous–we registered, and then didn’t have a ceremony. Well, a month later his mom felt the need to have a small dinner with some family members. But it was nowhere near the elaborate affair of most Chinese weddings. We consider our wedding day the day we registered.

    Last month a Chinese friend of ours got married–well, they had the ceremony. But his mother is very superstitious, and believes that registering the marriage in 2010 will bring bad luck, so out of respect for her they will wait until 2011 to register. So in the eyes of all his family and friends, they are married, although legally they are not. So, yes, you can have the ceremony before the registration, but the registration has to happen at some point to be legally married.

    1. @Gerald, so true on the importance of social recognition. (BTW, if you haven’t, have a look at Gerald’s post which dovetails with this topic).

      @Chris, yes, I think you could have the ceremony before you even got registered. I was just reading something today, about weddings in Taiwan, and it seems like some people have done just that.

      @jackie, that is so interesting your registration felt way more significant than your wedding ceremony! And, on the flip side, interesting that your friend had the ceremony, but isn’t registered. I think I did read something about the issue w/ 2010 being bad luck in marriage (something about it being a “blind year” b/c there weren’t enough spring days in the year).

      @Chinamatt, what an interesting account! I had no idea your wife is from Xinjiang. I could see why you would treasure that certificate, as it is written in Chinese and Uygur.

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