Do You Need to Wear a Cheongsam in Your Chinese Wedding?

When you tie the knot across cultural and even international borders, as I have, the whole idea of “I do” suddenly becomes even more complicated. Now you’ve got another culture to consider, with its own set of expectations for the wedding.

If that culture happens to be Chinese, that means there’s another possibility for your wedding dress – the cheongsam. Which leads to this question:

Do you need to wear a cheongsam in your Chinese wedding?

For those of you who don’t know about the cheongsam, also known as the qipao, it’s 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.

By C.H.Wong Photo Studio.Shanghai.China.中国上海王开摄影有限公司 – http://blog.voc.com.cn/blog.php?do=showone&uid=2785&type=blog&itemid=85453;http://www.kaixin005.com/repaste/3273028_2612066860.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8669270

While most women in China don’t wear the dress on a daily basis, it does appear at certain holidays (like Chinese New Year) and special occasions such as weddings. So it’s very common to see brides wearing cheongsam in their pre-wedding photos and at their wedding ceremonies or banquets.

But does that make the dress a must-have in your Chinese wedding?

The short answer is, not necessarily.

I’ve attended a number of Chinese weddings where the brides never even wore a cheongsam. While you’re almost guaranteed to see Chinese brides decked out in a white frothy gown fit for a princess, the cheongsam is generally optional. (Unless, of course, it’s an expectation or wedding tradition of the Chinese side of the family.)

Still, a lot of brides in China will opt to have a cheongsam for a number of reasons. First, you get to wear more than one dress – three is very typical for weddings in China — which means, at least here, you don’t have to choose. And second, the cheongsam is a gorgeous way to add a little Chinese flair to your bridal look.

Many women have rocked the cheongsam in their Chinese weddings, and it’s hard to resist the allure of this sexy dress, which hugs every curve. I ended up wearing two in my own Chinese wedding ceremony (which I’ve shown in the photos I included with this post).

So really, the question shouldn’t be, do you need to wear a cheongsam in your Chinese wedding? Instead, you should ask yourself, do you want one?

P.S.: While you can purchase a cheongsam or qipao online through stores such as Amazon, I highly recommend getting yours tailor-made in Asia. Here’s a list of tailors in Hong Kong, a list of tailors in Shanghai, and a list of tailors and stores in Beijing.

P.P.S.: While the issue of cultural appropriation can come into play whenever non-Asian women are wearing a cheongsam, I like Walking May’s take on this:

I feel the difference between the offensive and non-offensive is crucially ‘how one wears the traditional dress’, so here’s a few ideas to consider:

  • Research that dress! If you would like to wear a Qipao (Cheongsam) respectfully, then do a little research into what looks nice with it and know the name of what it is that you will be wearing. It is probably best not to mix a widely perceived Chinese dress with items from other Asian cultures, to avoid making broad statements about all Asian cultures, or indeed dig out the political through a historical war context that could simmer a stereotypical grudge of some sort. If in doubt, keep it simple.

  • Mere fun-filled costume or true loving appreciation? Your intention matters, and how you choose to wear a traditional garment will allow others to decipher information about you as well as how you feel about the garment. If you love something, then you will simply want to do it justice and appreciated it in the best way that you can.

What do you think?

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. 😉

Guest Post: The Traditional Chinese Wedding That Changed Me & My Dating Preferences

Have you ever attended a wedding that changed the way you thought about yourself — and who you want to date? That’s what happened to Joanna Scarpuzzi, who writes, “Even though I thought I had grown up under much Chinese culture and influence, nothing had prepared me for the experience that this wedding was.”

Do you have a story about a life-changing wedding — or another guest post you’d like to see featured here? Visit the submit a post page to learn more about how to have your writing published on this blog.
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Joanna Scarpuzzi
Joanna Scarpuzzi

Growing up in a mixed family (my dad is White-American, and my mom is Asian-American), I was excited to see who my siblings and I would date and eventually marry. All of us kids were homeschooled until were in 9th grade so our circle of friends was pretty small. I remember my sisters and I having crushes on White boys and Asian boys alike. My brother, also, dated a Chinese girl, a mixed girl, and a White girl, in that order.

It wasn’t until we were college age that our preferences became more evident. My sisters felt that Asian culture was too traditional and exclusive dated White boys. I, on the other hand, moved to China in 2010 to teach at an international school in an attempt to learn more about my Asian roots. During my six years abroad, if someone were to ask me if I could see myself married to a Chinese man, I would have told them, without a doubt, yes! I loved everything about Chinese culture: the food, the language, the community aspects, the filial piety.

Then, I attended a traditional Chinese countryside wedding. A group of us foreigners spent a weekend at a hotel awaiting the wedding festivities for our friend and coworker. The whole time we were there, we were not allowed to do anything remotely relating to helping with preparations. We were treated like honored guests.

The morning of the wedding, we joined the friends and family in the courtyard of the house. Cousins climbed up on the roof to bang pots and pans and set off firecrackers to welcome the wedding party.

After a short traditional ceremony in the courtyard, the bride and groom were ushered into their wedding chambers where they sat on a red-blanketed bed with posters of naked babies on the wall behind them. On that bed, they played some teasing games while the groom’s friends and relatives tossed nuts and dried fruit at them.

It was during this time that I realized how very different I really was. Even though I thought I had grown up under much Chinese culture and influence, nothing had prepared me for the experience that this wedding was. It was so different from my expectations for weddings, and made me realize I would not want a wedding like this, which made me wonder if it was really just the wedding or if it was something more.

It was this experience that caused me to ponder on the fact that perhaps I wasn’t being honest with myself when I told people I could see myself ending up with a Chinese man. Maybe I’m more independent than I thought or maybe my version of being raised the Asian way was a mixture of East and West. Maybe I wasn’t willing to give up being “comfortable” in America to truly connect with my roots. Whatever the reason, someday I hope to find a man who embraces my world, a perfect blend of Chinese and American culture.

After living in China for the past six years, Joanna Scarpuzzi is now back in the US and writes about teaching and her experiences with culture, specifically Asian culture.
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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Ask the Yangxifu: Siblings Won’t Give Hongbao at her Chinese Wedding

(photo by 多瑙河之野鸭 via Flickr.com)
(photo by 多瑙河之野鸭 via Flickr.com)

Stacy asks:

I am having my wedding celebration in Beijing in late Spring of this year and my family is coming to celebrate from [Western country]. Now, let me first say that my family has been just HORRIBLE about the entire situation. What I mean by family is my siblings. They feel like ‘I am being a bridezilla’ which in my opinion I am not. One minute they are mad at me because I didn’t ask them to be in the wedding (you only have one bridesmaid/groomsman in a traditional Chinese wedding and its not a great job—I want them to enjoy the wedding, not be following me around) the next minute they are telling me that I am being selfish because I haven’t shared any details of the wedding with them. I have explained the situation to them 1 million times, I am not planning this wedding my father and mother in law are (they are also paying for it) and I basically just have to show up on the day (P.S. I am actually really happy about this as I have planned a wedding before and it’s not easy). Anyways moving on, we have a huge problem right now with the hongbao.

My siblings refuse to give hongbao because they are paying to come to China and their hotel, etc and believe that it’s extremely expensive and are making me feel BAD about MY OWN WEDDING!. My husband says that its a slap in the face for China and all Chinese people if they don’t give the hongbao “mei mianzi’ [no face], I’m sure you are familiar. Me, I’m stuck in the middle. I understand where they are coming from but I am extremely upset with them because they have turned what is supposed to be a joyous occasion into something that I am dreading. I tried to mediate the situation by saying that if they gave hongbao, we would obviously pay for the hotel and their 4 day excursion around Beijing. However they completely disagree with the whole concept. They want to show up at my wedding without hongbao and just pay for everything on their own — the hotel and the excursion.

I don’t know what to do at this point. I think my husband is right, I mean it’s going to look really bad that my family does not give hongbao at my wedding. It’s a traditional Chinese wedding, I’m wearing traditional Chinese clothes and we are doing everything by Chinese custom which my siblings completely don’t understand. Help!

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Egads!

I have a feeling you’ll never convince your siblings to do the right thing. I’ve met people like them. They remind me of “ugly American” tourists who act as anti-ambassadors around the world, making everyone hate America just a little more when they disrespect local cultures. Their way is, of course, the right way and the only way! 😉

Ugh!

It’s bad enough to meet these people in your travels, but worse if you’re actually related to them. You have my deepest sympathies.

So here’s what I’m proposing:

Option #1: Have them present empty hongbao envelopes. Okay, it’s not ideal and it is a little bit of a “bait-and-switch”. But no one would ever have to know. I’m sure somewhere in a Chinese etiquette book out there, there’s an entry about “never opening the hongbao before your guests” just as Chinese never open gifts when presented. I’ve never seen it happen. Your family will have no idea there’s nothing inside…and you can remove them from your hongbao pile before any prying hands/eyes are the wiser. Just give the envelopes to your siblings and ask them to present them at the wedding. Later on, you can then stuff the envelopes with cash yourselves (should the family do any post-wedding bookkeeping and need to record the amounts).

But then again, with such uncooperative siblings, chances are they wouldn’t even agree to this! And if so…

Option #2: Prepare hongbao for each sibling yourselves. Just stuff them with appropriately auspicious sums of cash, write their names on the envelope, and then drop them into your basket/bag when nobody happens to notice. (Alternatively, have the bridesmaid or groomsman deposit them in the basket/bag ahead of time.) Then, when it comes time to add up the hongbao cash after the wedding, your family will see the contribution and assume your siblings did their part.

Of course, if this seems like too much work for a bunch of ungrateful siblings, there’s always…

Option #3: Don’t invite them.

What do you think? What advice would you have?

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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.

Double Happiness: How Alex married Fei, and became a wedding planner in Qingdao, China

Canadian Alex calls it destiny. She went to China in June 2010 as an exchange student, never realizing she would leave her heart in Qingdao — and end up becoming a wedding planner together with her husband, Fei.

Today, they run H-Flower together in Qingdao, and their story is as beautiful as the designs they create for weddings and more. Even better, Alex shares her how-we-met-and-married tale in two languages — and has graciously provided a video starring the two of them (with subtitles in English and Chinese). In addition to their company website, you can also follow Alex and Fei’s company on Weibo.

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Our hometowns share an ocean, but are on different continents. We both celebrate a new year, but at a different time. We both have parents, but only one of us has siblings.

I can tell the story of how Fei and I met in two languages. This type of meeting is called 缘分 (yuanfen) which depicts that by fate or destiny two people come together.

Like most foreigners here I began my journey as an exchange student in June 2010. At the same time Fei agreed to help his friend by teaching a class on Business in China. Fei studied and lived in Dublin, Ireland for nine years. When we met it was not in Canada, it was not in Ireland, nor was it in Fei’s hometown Qingdao (青岛). We met in a small suburb outside the city, in an old classroom on the 6th floor.

In class we exchanged cards and arranged to meet later on. We went with several friends for a dinner of roast duck, which led to night market shopping, and further an intimate pot of blue mountain coffee shared between the two of us. After coffee I followed like a puppy to watch a football match in a pub even though I had never been a fan.

Fei

The next day I left to Xi’an. It was painful leaving but the Terracotta warriors, Yangzte River, and Wuhan Dam all distracted me for a little while. As I traveled throughout China we kept in contact every day via text message. Through these short but meaningful first messages we subtly developed our relationship.

We met in a classroom, bonded over coffee, and spent only one week together in Qingdao, China before I had to fly home to Canada. Over the distance our relationship grew closer and commitment solidified.

Today we work side-by-side creating weddings and events here in Qingdao. Everyday we share a cup of coffee together, we make jokes and laugh in both languages, and when I am not at home working we are often crazily texting each other about some little wedding detail or color combination.

Alex, doing a floral arrangement for a wedding.

It feels surreal to think that my small exchange student opportunity has opened up this entire new world. I am fluent in Chinese, married to a wonderful husband, and we are both building our careers and future together everyday.

It’s quite complicated how we came to be in the wedding industry. After we were engaged we of course began to think about how to arrange and coordinate an international wedding party. We also went to check out a few of the local wedding planners (婚庆公司). At first I saw their weddings and just didn’t really understand how there was such a huge T-shaped stage, many different colored lights, and aisle decorations that were nearly touching the ceiling? I thought to myself this isn’t the wedding that I imagined and just doesn’t feel right.

So after some trials and tribulations and meeting the right people, in May 2011 we had our first wedding client (a friend of a friend of course). Our first wedding was an amazing (and frustrating) learning experience about the different between Western and Chinese style weddings. I learned very quickly that creating hand-made seating arrangements for 300+ people just do not work!

One year later I had the chance to design and create our own wedding. I wanted to give my Chinese family and friends the experience of what a western style wedding is like. We were married by the sea, in the yard of a 100 year old building, we ate delicious steak and drank wine, we danced, we ate cake, and we drank some more. It was the best day of my life and Fei agrees it was his too.

Our company is growing, we are learning so much everyday and being challenged in every way possible. I feel honored that I can help other brides and grooms create the same wonderful memories that we had after our wedding day.

我来自加拿大的西海岸, 我未婚夫来自中国的东海岸。 我经常会被问到我们相遇的故事,通常我都会用中文和英文一起来描绘这一段。

2010年春天,我当时的大学组织到到青岛的一所合作大学交流学习。我从没有想到过会来到中国,但是还是欣然接收了这为期6周的越洋学习的机会。我未婚夫的朋友当时请他帮忙来这所大学教一节“在中国做生意”的课,用英文。第一次我看见他,第一次听见他的声音,我知道我喜欢他整个人 。

(photo by TANG VISION from Shanghai www.tangvision.com)

他在跟我们讲经济的时候我当时在凝视他的眼睛… … 之后有一次机会,我们和我的朋友,我们一起去吃饭,然后逛街,一直到只剩我们两个人的一壶醉人的蓝山咖啡。那天晚上,我就高兴的跟着他去看足球比赛(世界杯),在那之前我从来不看足球比赛,但是突然间我发觉紧张的被这项运动吸引了。

那天晚上,Fei送我回到我朋友的楼下,第二天我就要去西安旅行了,一去就是十天。刚刚遇到他就要离开让我很舍不得。 当我游览中国的名胜古迹(也是最热的城市)的时候我们每天都不断的互发短信。 当时我还不确定他对我的感觉,直到当我收到一条消息,说,“我想你”。那个时候我就想马上回到青岛!

我们在教室里遇到,一壶咖啡让我们靠近,在我回加拿大之前我们在一起短短的一周时间。当时的我不知道我们之间会发生什么但是我有强烈的愿望要回来。我们各自恢复了正常的生活,我回到了学校,Fei开始了一家公司(每天我们都用Skype和QQ在网上见面。随着时间过去我们的感情也成长了,秋天的时候,我们彼此知道心里只有对方。现在的我坐在这里看着我手指上美丽的订婚戒指,其他的都仿佛是历史了。

Alex lives with her husband Fei in Qingdao, China, where she is the executive designer, florist and stylist for H-Flower.

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We’re looking for a few good stories from Chinese men and Western women in love — or out of love — to share on Fridays. Submit your original story or a published blog post today.

Double Happiness: How One Chinese American Woman Married a Chinese National

Alex and Michelle Guo visiting San Diego, California, USA (photo courtesy of Michelle Guo)

Chinese American Michelle Guo — a fellow blogger and personal friend — shares her story of how she went to China and ended up marrying Alex, a man from Henan Province.

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Four years ago when I first came to Beijing, locals asked me what brought me back to China. The question always threw me off, since I was born in Portland, spent most of my life in California, and had never been to China before. I’m Chinese-American and was raised by my mom, who is anything BUT a traditional Chinese parent. My values, thinking, and culture are very Western, which is why I assumed that whoever I married, no matter what ethnicity, would also be American, or at the very least a Westerner.

Sometimes it’s really, really nice to make the wrong assumption. Continue reading “Double Happiness: How One Chinese American Woman Married a Chinese National”

Ask the Yangxifu: What To Wear To Chinese Weddings in China

Jen asks:

I’m going to attend a Chinese wedding in Shanghai soon and I have NO idea what to wear! Could you please help with some suggestions???

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When it comes to attending weddings in China, think casual.

I’ve seen people wear nice jeans or skirts, T-shirts, sweaters and even sneakers to weddings — yes, sneakers! In China, whatever people wear in public or to the office is pretty much the same thing they’ll wear to a wedding. Which means if you choose to go a little more formal — a nice suit, a lovely dress — you might actually stick out even more than you usually do as a foreigner in China. Dress up at own your risk. Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: What To Wear To Chinese Weddings in China”

The Next Big Thing: On “Red All Over,” My Forthcoming Memoir

(At my wedding banquet in China, posing with one of our guests)

I am thrilled that Susan Blumberg-Kason invited me to participate in the The Next Big Thing, an Internet meme where writers answer questions about their latest or forthcoming works.

Susan is the author of the forthcoming memoir Good Chinese Wife. This book traces the five years she spent trying to assimilate into a Chinese family, after jumping quickly into marriage with a Chinese man. But over time, she comes to reconsider what she thought it meant to be a wife, have a family, and raise a child — and faces the tough choice of whether or not to leave her Chinese family.

I’ve read portions of her memoir, and I can honestly say it’s a gripping story written from the heart. I loved Susan as a narrator because she shares so many of her vulnerabilities on the page. I liked the unusual, non-linear structure of her book as well, which really adds to the drama of her story and keeps you turning the pages.

And I’m sure many of you, like myself, can’t wait to get your hands on Susan’s book. To learn more, check out her Next Big Thing post from last week, or read the brief introduction to Good Chinese Wife on her website.

Now for my interview questions, which I’ll follow with introductions to several authors to watch for. Continue reading “The Next Big Thing: On “Red All Over,” My Forthcoming Memoir”

Ask the Yangxifu: How to Wear A Qipao In Your Western Wedding Ceremony

N asks:

I’m engaged and planning a wedding in the States w/ my Chinese-American fiancee. He suggested incorporating a qipao into the ceremony. But I already have wedding colors for my bridesmaids’ dresses (green) and don’t like wearing red. If I decide to wear a qipao, how should I incorporate it into my ceremony? Must I wear red? Also, I will be going to China later this year, should I consider buying one over there? Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: How to Wear A Qipao In Your Western Wedding Ceremony”