Don’t Marry in a ‘Widow Year’? On a Chinese New Year Superstition

Did you know that 2019, the Year of the Pig, was a widow year, and it was supposedly “unlucky for marriage?

A “widow year”?

I’ve heard the term “widow”, a woman whose husband has died, used to describe all sorts of things, from the “widow’s peak” on your hairline to, of course, the deadly “black widow spider”. And given the original meaning of “widow”, the term, when paired with a year, struck me as a rather ominous combination.

This piqued my curiosity, which prompted me to do a little research and learn more about this superstition.

Why do people call it a “widow year”? And why is it supposedly bad for marriage?

A “widow year” means any year in the Chinese lunar calendar without lichun or Spring Commences, one of the 24 solar terms that divide up the lunar year. Specifically, lichun or Spring Commences marks the coming of the spring season.

According to the China Daily article Couples Rush to Tie Knot Ahead of “Widow Year” (published Feb 3, 2010), some Chinese people think of lichun or Spring Commences as “a time of Yang (masculine) energy.” To them, a year without lichun or Spring Commences equals a year without Yang energy as well.

The article provides further clarification:

Superstitious people believe women who get married in a year without the “Spring Commences” day will become widows. … Tradition-bound parents also fear consequences like husbands coming to harm, marriages breaking down and children getting bad luck.

Should you postpone your wedding plans during a “widow year”?

If you’re newly engaged, should you put the nuptials on ice or opt for a speedy elopement before the “widow year” begins?

Well, consider what that China Daily article also said:

Regarding the idea of a “widow year”, Guo Hu, director of Beijing’s Bureau of Meteorology, says that on average, there are seven so-called “widow years” every 19 years. But there are also seven years with two “Spring Commences” days in the same 19 years.

“It is totally groundless to say a year without a Spring Commences day is unlucky,” Guo told the Beijing Daily.

In other words, it all depends on your perspective and what you consider auspicious.

After all, imagine all the hundreds of thousands of people who marry in any given “widow year” around the world. Every single one of these couples could not possibly suffer the same marital misfortune. If a “widow year” truly posed a threat to people everywhere, then why didn’t anyone ever pass the warning on to me while in the US?

And, apparently, a growing number of young Chinese people don’t mind flouting this superstition either, as the China Daily article Vowing to be different with the nuptials notes:

Wang Xiaoqiang, a 26-year-old white collar worker in Shanghai, doesn’t really care that the Year of the Snake 2013 is not regarded as a propitious year for weddings.

“I was told Lunar 2013 is not a good year to get married but that is something believed by elderly people,” said Wang.

In other words, when a “widow year” comes, worry less about the superstition — and follow your heart instead.

What do you think about the “widow year” superstition for Chinese New Year? Would you marry in a “widow year”, or would you postpone your wedding?

Correction: Updated original post, which incorrectly named 2020 as a widow year.

Photo Essay: Celebrating 15 Years of Marriage

Just last week, my husband Jun and I marked a major milestone in our marriage. Fifteen years ago on July 26, we stood before a government representative in Shanghai, promising to spend the rest of our lives together. It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since that moment, yet I love Jun just as much as the first time I stood before him and said, “Wo yuanyi!” (“I do” in Chinese — and yes, like most of us in China, I did it more than once for reasons explained in this post).

To commemorate those 15 incredible years I’ve enjoyed with the love of my life, a guy who still makes me swoon after all this time together, I’m sharing one of our marriage registration photos from 2004 plus 15 photos of us together (one from each year of our marriage)!

2004

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This photo was taken just moments after we took our vows in a civil ceremony in Shanghai and signed our official little red marriage books. Can’t you just see that newly-registered glow in our faces? (Or maybe it’s the red we both wore that day!) 😉

2005

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As part of our Huangshan Honeymoon in 2005 (which I wrote about in an essay for the new anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit) we visited a couple of traditional Huizhou-style villages in the foothills of Huangshan. Here we pose before a reflecting pool in Hongcun.

2006

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We visited friends in Chicago in February 2006 and ended up strolling beside Lake Michigan, despite the freezing winter temperatures. Who needs to worry about cold weather when you have the love of your life beside you to keep you warm? 😉

2007

Jocelyn and Jun in the park near Fenshui River.

The summer of 2007, we returned to John’s hometown to make our marriage official (in the eyes of his family and friends) with a big Chinese wedding ceremony.

2008

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Late in the summer of 2008, John and I took off for one last camping trip deep in the Rocky Mountains. What views!

2009

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When John and I went to China for the summer of 2009, we indulged in a month-long trip across the country to take in all of the sights we never visited years before — from Xi’an and Chengdu to Changsha and Kaifeng.

2010

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John and I welcomed the year of the tiger in 2010 as the emcees of a Chinese New Year celebration. What a night!

2011

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Here we are in 2011 celebrating John’s birthday over Thai curries. John never used to think much of his birthday until I came along — but if the smile on his face is any measure, he loves the change!

2012

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To commemorate our wedding anniversary in 2012, we enjoyed a relaxing evening of classical music performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. But before heading out, we posed before the flower garden to remember the evening.

2013

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For Chinese New Year in 2013, John and I whipped up a traditional Chinese feast for the family — from roast goose and ribs to ginger-garlic green beans and stir-fried matchstick potatoes. We’re smiling, but there’s exhaustion behind those eyes because we spent the entire morning in the kitchen! Still, it was worth the effort.

2014

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There’s nothing like finally spending Chinese New Year at the family home in China for the first time in years. In 2014, Jun and I reunited with his family and the country we love.

2015

On my birthday in 2015, Jun and I visited the West Lake, snapping this photo by our beloved corner of the lake near Qu Yuan Feng He (曲院风荷).

2016

Jun and I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Washington DC with family in the summer of 2016, where we had the chance to look upon all the iconic landmarks.

2017

Jun and I took this shot just after moving from Hangzhou to Beijing.

2018

As spring arrived in the park near our home in Beijing, Jun and I took the time to take a walk and appreciate the flowers.

2019

Jun and I are taking a stroll through a park in Beijing on a gorgeous summer afternoon.

Here’s hoping for many more incredible years to come together!

Mandarin Love: A Banquet of Chinese Wedding/Marriage Words, With Personal Notes

It’s nearly summer, that intoxicating season of endless love — and, where I’m from, one punctuated by lots of wedding invitations. If you’re planning to tie the knot in China or know someone who will, here’s handy little reference of Chinese wedding/marriage words and expressions, with some of my own personal notes.

Getting Married in Chinese

Qiúhūn, 求婚: Whether you’re getting down on one knee or making a big spectacle, this word means “propose marriage.”

I proposed (marriage) to her.
我向她求婚了.
wŏ xiàng tā qiúhūn le

Note that in recent years, the trend in China is for men to turn wedding proposals into major spectacles — make it memorable and romantic!

Jiéhūn, 结婚: If you’re “getting married” here’s the word for you — as in

We’re getting married!
我们要结婚啦!
Wǒmen yào jiéhūn la!

But keep in mind that there are also different words for a woman marrying a man versus a man marrying a woman. The difference reflects the Chinese perspective that the woman marries into the man’s family.

Qǔ,娶: If you’re a man and you are marrying someone, you use qǔ,娶, which also can mean “take a bride”. For example:

He married a girl from Henan.
他娶了个河南姑娘。
Tā qǔle gè Hénán gūniang.

Jià, 嫁: Women, however, are perceived as marrying out and so you use the word jià, 嫁 instead. For example:

I married (gave myself to) him.
我嫁给他了。
Wǒ jià gěi tā le.

But if you think that’s confusing, so are anniversary dates in China. That’s because most people register their marriages and thus become officially married ahead of the wedding ceremony itself. (If you’re curious, read The Dengji Question: How Marriage in China Gets Confusing.) Which brings me to the next word…

Dēngjì, 登记: While this word means “to register” in general, it’s also a term people use to describe registering a marriage in China (which must be done in a marriage registration bureau and usually happens before an actual wedding ceremony occurs).

We registered (our marriage)!
我们登记了!
Wǒmen dēngjìle!

Hūnlǐ, 婚礼: This is the standard word for “wedding ceremony” and the best term to use when in doubt.

But there are other similar words people often use to talk about wedding ceremonies (which usually just comprise the banquet with guests in China), such as xǐshì, 喜事 (usually taken to mean “wedding”), xǐjiǔ, 喜酒 (meaning “wedding feast”) and of course, hūnyàn, 婚宴 (“wedding banquet”, also the name of the famous film by Ang Lee).

Wedding Attire in Chinese

Hūnshā, 婚纱: The white bridal gown, which has become standard for brides in China. At wedding ceremonies/banquets, the bride usually wears her hūnshā first. If you’re purchasing a wedding dress in China, keep in mind there are lots of options for having yours tailor-made, which is what I did years ago in Suzhou (which like a number of cities, has its own “wedding-dress street).

Tóushā, 头纱: The veil for your white bridal gown.

Qípáo, 旗袍: As I wrote before, the qipao or cheongsam is “a high-necked and form-fitting style of dress with slits down the skirt, often on both sides. The dress first appeared in 1920s Shanghai as a modern take on traditional Manchu garb, and has since evolved into a stylish tradition of its own for women in China.” Since most Chinese brides wear several dresses, many opt to have a qipao at their weddings. I actually wore two at mine.

If you’re debating whether or not to have one, see Do You Need to Wear a Cheongsam in Your Chinese Wedding?

Wǎnlǐfú, 晚礼服: The evening gown, another wedding dress option chosen by many Chinese brides.

But let’s not forget the groom…

Yànwěifú, 燕尾服: A tuxedo, one option for the groom.

Tángzhuāng, 唐装: A Tang suit, which mainly consists of a jacket, often made of silk or silk brocade, to match a bride’s qipao. My husband wore a Tang suit at our wedding.

The Wedding Party in Chinese

Xīnniáng, 新娘: The bride. While weddings in the West traditionally have reflected the bride’s style, weddings in China often revolve heavily around the family and guests. In other words, it’s a family affair, much like in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet.

Xīnláng, 新郎: The groom.

Xīnrén, 新人: The newlywed couple.

Bànniáng, 伴娘: The bridesmaid(s)

Bànláng, 伴郎: The groomsman/groomsmen

Traditionally, bridesmaids and groomsmen in Chinese weddings should be unmarried individuals.

Other Wedding Must-Haves in Chinese

Hūnshāzhào, 婚纱照: Pre-wedding photos, one of the most important — and glamorous — steps in getting married. There’s a huge industry in China devoted to turning every young couple into models for a day, complete with multiple outfits, professional makeup and hair designers, and airbrushed photos.

Jiéhūn jièzhǐ, 结婚戒指 (hūn jiè, 婚戒): The wedding ring. While not a traditional part of Chinese weddings, most couples today will exchange rings.

Hūnchē, 婚车: The wedding car, a modern version of the traditional wedding sedan chair (or jiàozi, 轿子). Expect your wedding car, which is almost always a luxury model, to be decorated in elaborate flower arrangements.

Xīnfáng, 新房: While it literally means “bridal chamber” — traditionally, extended families lived together so the new couple only had a chamber within the home — now people use the term to refer to the apartment or home purchased explicitly in preparation for a wedding, usually bought by the groom. (The pressure to buy an apartment in China, where prices have skyrocketed in major metropolitan areas, weighs heavily on the shoulders of young men, especially if their families don’t have much money. See Marriage in China Is Home, Car Money?)

Xǐtáng, 喜糖: Wedding candy. Whenever someone gets married in China, they will pass out wedding candy to all their guests as well as friends and even coworkers who may not have attended the nuptials. There’s a whole industry built around this, with ultra-cute boxes for the candies. (I love chocolate, but soft corn candies shaped like miniature corn cobs are a personal favorite as well.)

Nàodòngfáng, 闹洞房: Roughhousing in the bridal chamber, also known as the most humiliating portion of the wedding for the bride and groom. Their friends will either corner them in the banquet hall or follow them back to the new apartment or a rented hotel room, and tease them with risque practical jokes (including those involving bananas). Traditionally, it was done to ease the new couple into their sex life, long before sex education existed; now it’s just done to amuse the guests and make the couple blush, and then some. Sigh.

Hóngbāo, 红包: Red envelopes stuffed with money. Chinese weddings may be exhausting for the couple, but at least you can count on receiving lots of these from your guests.

Other Helpful Chinese Wedding Expressions

Méndānghùduì, 门当户对: Refers to families of equal status. Traditionally, Chinese marriages happened between families that matched each other in rank and wealth.

Báitóuxiélǎo, 白头偕老: A happy greeting for the newlyweds that means, “May you live together until you’re old and gray.”

Sāndàjiàn, 三大件: The three big items, which refers to three must-haves for married couples. Once upon a time when my in-laws married, it was actually four big items (sìdàjiàn, 四大件). In more recent times, the must-haves are things such as a home, car and money — or even a home, car, money and nice honeymoon.

Jīngpílìjié, 精疲力竭: Completely exhausted, which is how the bride and groom will probably feel after that marathon Chinese wedding. Trust me.

What do you think? What terms would you add/recommend?

Why I Don’t Have the Luxury to Think “Marriage Is Outdated”

The other day, a friend told me the idea of marriage was outdated and totally over-commercialized. She said she had absolutely no interest in getting married.

I totally understood where she was coming from – because, after all, there was a moment in my life when I felt exactly the same way.

I’m not sure when it started – probably sometime in high school – but I was ambivalent about marriage and weddings. Whether it was the rising divorce rate, the growing acceptance of cohabitation or the fact that I never met anyone I could even picture myself married to, I can’t really say. I just know I didn’t grow up with dreams of the perfect white dress and honeymoons and the house in the suburbs with that white picket fence.

My mother once told me about the girls she remembered from college, there for the so-called “MRS” degree. I started my freshman year at university with her advice echoing in my mind – how I should just enjoy myself and not get too tied down to anyone. I enjoyed going out with guys during college, but I always intuitively understood that it was never about finding “the one” and more about finding out who I was. Though I never explicitly said so to anyone or even to myself, looking back, I realize I struggled with the idea of being committed to anyone — making thoughts of the greatest commitment of all, marriage, impossible for me.

But all that changed when I went to work in China after graduation, and fell for a Chinese man. It was the first time the M-word – marriage – was a serious possibility.

It wasn’t just that I was deeply in love with him, more than I had ever felt for anyone else in my life up to that point. Nor was it some generalized cultural pressure from family, his or mine.

No, it had to do with something most of us take for granted – the ability to introduce someone to your family and your parents and even your hometown.

At some point in my first year in China, during that time when this guy and I were dating, I imagined what my dad and stepmom might say when they finally shook his hand in their home. Or what my grandma would make for us when we came to visit. Or what he would think after seeing the high school I attended and the library my mother once worked at.

But these thoughts were easily derailed by the harsh reality for Chinese passport holders, who included my boyfriend. After all, he had applied twice for a US visa and was rejected both times. It didn’t matter how much I hoped to take him home to see the family and my hometown, because there was always this huge international bureaucratic hurdle that stood between us.

It’s one thing to ask your parents if it’s OK to bring your steady boyfriend or girlfriend over, not certain how Mom and Dad might respond.

But it’s another thing entirely to have to ask an entire country for permission to bring this person over in an embassy or consulate, where your love for them and your word no longer matters. Where decisions can sometimes feel arbitrary and capricious in the cold, aseptic visa interview rooms. Where it’s sometimes hard to understand why some people get visas and others don’t.

In addition, there’s a flip side to this conversation – namely, the right to remain in the foreign country where you met your foreign boyfriend or girlfriend. While I never had this issue, consider what Canadian singer-songwriter Ember Swift once wrote regarding her marriage with Guo Jian:

For me, my decision to marry him wasn’t about pleasing him or pleasing his family and culture either; to be perfectly honest, it was about securing a visa! Anyone who has lived in China without a permanent work visa knows that the Chinese system for foreign visas is an ever-changing nightmare. And, by extension, I admit that I liked being identified as “the one” in his eyes—the one worthy of a life commitment. Are those first reasons selfish reasons to marry? Was I wrong to marry him when it benefitted me and my ego? I’ll concede that I stepped around my previous political views on marriage in order to express my respect for his culture, too, but that’s not exactly a selfless act of love; it’s more about mutual human respect.

While of course she loved Guo Jian, the added benefit of gaining a visa to stay in China was among the reasons she wanted to marry him.

I ultimately broke up with that guy I met my first year in China – but I’ve faced similar visa-related issues while dating Jun, who is also from China and who I eventually married.

What I’ve learned over the years is that debates about the “usefulness of marriage” or whether “marriage is outdated” or even whether “marriage is too commercialized and therefore pointless” are a luxury not everyone has.

You don’t have this option to talk about whether marriage matters when you’re a Westerner in love with a foreigner who isn’t given a visa on arrival for your country. Or when you’re a foreigner loving someone in his or her country, where securing a visa through marriage could ensure the two of you remain together. Being subject to the heartless bureaucracies that go hand in hand with immigration rules and residency gives you an entirely new perspective on the value of marriage.

I recognize that there are off-putting things about modern marriage and weddings. And I should know, because I’ve blogged openly about my dislike for weddings in China (to the point that I’d rather not attend them, if possible). We should have conversations about these things.

At the same time, I’m not advocating for sham marriages that exist only for the sole purpose of gaining a visa or residency in a specific country.

But the fact of the matter is, nothing is perfect. Not marriage or weddings or, especially, the immigration rules that can potentially wreck the best of plans between a young international couple genuinely in love with one another. Sometimes we do the best we can with what we have.

And sometimes, marriage matters simply because it could mean the chance to take your loved one abroad and finally see him shake hands with your father in your hometown, just as you always dreamed of.

Guest Post: Why We Are Not Married (Yet)

Betty of Betty Has A Panda has lived happily with Mr. Panda in Vienna, Austria for over seven years. But they’re not married — and it has led to lots of uncomfortable questions, including questions Betty has asked herself.

Do you have a story you’d like to share here on Speaking of China? We’re always on the lookout for terrific guest posts. Check out the submit a post page for more on how to have your writing featured here.
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(Photo by Nick Nguyen)

I am tired. Tired of all the ‘Why are you not married? Do you want to break up?” questions, or the pronouncements of ‘Oh, he is ONLY your boyfriend!’ Tired of explaining our allegedly ‘not-so-serious’ relationship and why we are not married (yet). While I think that this little detail of saying ‘I do!’ is not of any concern to anyone, I do not want to see others belittle our relationship just because we did not seal our relationship in front of a random registrar (yet). Is our relationship not worth as much as that of someone who is already married? This could be due to varied reasons, liberal worldviews, no bureaucratic obstacles, or bad role models. Beyond doubt, not being married does not make our relationship less worthy, and to answer all of those questions: we do not plan to break up. Not now, and also not in the future. Why would we date and live together for more than seven years now? Mr. Panda and I have our reasons to shack up.

Let me start at the beginning. Parents’ relationships can sometimes be a disastrous example to their children, which can make it hard for their children to connect with others – emotionally and legally. Mr. Panda’s parents are not exactly how I would imagine devoted parents. You could actually say they are as loving and caring as a metal scouring pad. Mr. Panda was the unplanned latecomer, and was therefore always made responsible for all troubles brewing in Chinese parent’s fragile marriage. Albeit they already split up three times before Mr. Panda was born, and came back together again. Mean teasing and verbal insults were on top of their daily agenda — not what one might expect in a loving and caring relationship. Of course divorce is absolutely prohibited. Instead, they continue to live with each other, leaving both their children emotionally crippled und almost unable to be in a working relationship with someone.

On top of that, only soon after Mr. Panda and I started dating, another event aggravated Mr. Panda’s beliefs in the whole social construct called marriage. As another blow of fate, Mr. Panda’s older brother, married to a woman from the Middle East with two children, filed for divorce due to cultural and personal disagreements – and told his parents only six months later. He had been married for quite some time, but sadly, in the end, it did not work out. While both of them separated without any bad feelings, the parents’ world collapsed. Mr. Panda’s mom cried for weeks, begging and commanding them not to separate, but naturally nothing helped. Soon after, the former wife moved out, and cracked the last intact pieces of Mr. Panda’s mom’s picture of a perfect family. I consoled her for weeks, trying to put her sorrows about her grandchildren at ease. Her faith in functioning marriages was busted, and as a result Mr. Panda is even more scared now. He is not scared that our relationship will break apart. But the only two marriages around him just did not work out. The reason why he did not propose to me so far? He is scared our relationship might end after marriage, and to a certain degree I can understand his (baseless) anxiety.

What is my excuse? I was busy with my studies, and time just flew by far too fast. Just in a blink of an eye, many years passed by. Up until now, I did not really care whether we said ‘I do!’ or not. We had no need to rush because we are not in desperate need of a visa. We are not pressured to do so because of some religious beliefs. We just spend our days happily together.

But this year, one thing led to another. I found out about the big AMWF community on the internet, which was all about happily married (intercultural) couples with their beautiful wedding photos. Furthermore, we were invited to a summer wedding by one of my friends, and another one of my good friends got engaged. Thanks to these events I also developed an urge to marry Mr. Panda, and I started to believe that it would actually draw us closer together.

It is a fact that nothing in our relationship will change after we marry. We will both live our lives together as we did up until now. We will both be just as serious about us being happy together and passionate about our relationship as we are now. We both will be the same individuals as ever. And still, here I am, apparently forgetting my liberal beliefs, letting my modern world break down over a marriage certificate I don’t need, while I am waiting for him to take the first step.

The last few months, we talked elaborately about this topic, I tried to discuss his fears and about how we both felt about marriage. But as expected, he did not want to talk about his feelings. Our conversations were rather rational. However, some time ago, he confessed to me that he was thinking about us and our future very hard for quite some time now. He asked me to be patient — that I should wait a little more — making me all excited. Hopefully, traumatized Mr. Panda can gather all his courage soon and will finally propose.

Betty and Mr. Panda live in Vienna, Austria, where she shares fascinating stories about their more than seven years together at www.bettyhasapanda.com.
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