Marriage. From the Zhou dynasty (771-256 B.C.E.) proceeding to the Tang period (618-907), the marriage institution evolved into a complex structure that was passed down to later dynasties without much alteration. Yet, those gradually established rules and customs laid the foundation for marriage laws set down under Tang rule. Parental con-sent remained the first marriage requirement, in which the father had final decisional power according to the law. If the parents were dead, the intention of marriage had to be reported to their spirits in the ancestral hall and at a shrine at home. Marriage also was required to be arranged through a go-between, who made the proposals to the two households. A marriage made without such a medium was often considered incomplete and to a large extent illegitimate. Another important custom prohibited marriage between persons of the same surname. The reason for this prohibition was the belief that people with the same sur-name were likely to be of similar origin, thus blood related, and therefore the family with a consanguineous marriage would produce few children and would not thrive. In some regions marriage between people of the same surname was condemned as an act of incest. Other taboos included marrying the widow of a deceased brother, marrying a fiancee of an elder brother, and marrying a female who had a his-tory of elopement. All such marriages were believed to bring disgrace to the family and should be nullified.
Quality. In choosing a mate for their child, many parents’ foremost concern was the social standing of the other family. Many parents preferred that the other family have a good reputation. Equally important was the personal quality of the young man or woman. In most cases the integrity and ability of a young man were valued more than family wealth. This tendency became most obvious starting with the Song dynasty (960-1279). The desired qualities for a bride were her virtues, one of the most important of which was her obedience to her future husband and parents-in-law. Her beauty was only a secondary priority, because general opinion held that a beautiful girl could not make a good wife and that she was more likely to have a loose morality and to cause trouble.
Six Rites. There were six rites that originated in classical times and were performed only in elite marriages prior to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), but in the Tang dynasty they became a common practice in the marriages of ordinary people. The six rites enjoyed legal status as part of marital law in the Tang, Song, and Ming Codes and became an established custom in imperial China. For a man to properly marry a woman the rites had to be per-formed in their correct order. The first rite was “giving choice.” After the marriage proposal was made, along with an accompanying gift, a lady’s family was, usually through a go-between, given the choice to accept the proposal. If they did so, the process could proceed. The second rite was “inquiring into the lady’s name and birthday,” to ensure that the bride-to-be did not bear the same surname or have any blood relative in common. The first and second rites were usually completed at the same time. The third rite was “giving the lucky result” of divination—usually performed in a religious way, to ensure that the marriage union was a balanced match, according to astrology. The fourth rite was “giving engagement” presents to the lady’s family. The fifth rite was “inquiring about the date” of the wedding. This step often involved consulting the lunar calendar and selecting a lucky day. Finally, the sixth rite was the groom’s “personal receiving” of his bride from her parents.
Preparations. Usually on the day prior to the wedding, the bride had her hair done in the fashion of a married woman and selected her dress. The bride’s parents invited female relatives for a farewell party for their daughter. The bride was then required to proceed by kneeling down to her parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts; she would also light scented incense before the ancestral altar for her last worship there. On the wedding day the bride got on a bridal sedan, dispatched to her residence by the bridegroom, and she was carried to her future husband’s house, usually accompanied by a band and a group of attendants holding red lanterns or shooting off firecrackers. When the bridal sedan was carried into the house of the bridegroom, the bride, whose face was covered by a thick veil, was led into the reception room. In some regions a woman who had borne children, particularly males, was the first person to greet the bride and lead her inside. The implication of this act was to bring good luck to the bride in childbearing.
New Family. The next major step of the wedding was for the bride and bridegroom to “worship heaven and earth.” They were guided to kneel down and bow to the family’s religious totems, then to the groom’s parents, to his ancestral tablets, and sometimes to a representation of the emperor-in-reign. Kow Ton (kneel and bow) always proceeded in an even number (two or four times) rather than an odd number (one or three times), because odd numbers were, and still are, regarded in some regions as inauspicious on a wedding day. Finally, after other minor procedures, the couple was led into the bridal chamber to consummate the union. Only then did the groom remove the bride’s head covering. Often it was the first time ever that the husband or wife saw each other’s facial features. The custom of covering the bride’s face with a thick red veil on the wedding day is said to have originated in the Tang dynasty as a way to add some mystique, because prior to the wedding a prospective bride and groom were rarely even acquainted. Once their names were known to each other, etiquette demanded that they avoid contact until the wed-ding. This custom later turned out to be an effective way to assist in arranged marriages and to regulate romance between young men and women. In some regions another popular wedding custom was to spread soybeans and pea-nuts on the marriage bed, in hopes that the couple would add more offspring to the family.
Richard Gunde, Culture and Customs of China (Westport, Conn.: Green-wood Press, 2002).
Li-Ch’eng Kuo, Chung-Kuo Mm Su Shih Hua (Tales of Chinese Folk Customs) (Taiwan: Hankuang Press, 1983).
Yongzhou Qin, Zhongguo She Hui Feng Shu Shi (History of Chinese Social Customs) (Shangdong, China: Shangdong People’s Press, 2000).