Lively and full of color, Chinese weddings are lavish affairs that are as much about the happy couple as they are about their respective families. A celebration marked by rituals and traditions, many symbolic aspects focus on blessings of prosperity, abundance, and happiness for the couple from both friends and family members.
“Chinese weddings can last the whole day because of all the Chinese wedding traditions,” shares wedding planner Celia Yu. The length and size of the party largely depend on what both families agree to and their requirements, as well as the provinces, different traditions, and rituals. “Ultimately it consists of two main parts,” says wedding planner Nicole Froelich. “Where the Chinese tea ceremony is intimate and only for both families, the Chinese banquet (in Western weddings, it’s the wedding reception) is for the guests of the couple and both families.”
Meet the Expert
- Celia Yu is the owner and lead wedding planner at Big Day Service, a wedding planning company based in San Francisco that specializes in weddings full of cultural heritage, authenticity, and timeless moments.
- Nicole Froelich is an expert destination wedding planner and owner of Nicole Please. Based in Hong Kong and fluent in Mandarin, German, Swiss-German, French, and English, she’s pulled off picture-perfect weddings in Spain, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Italy.
Wondering what else you need to know before attending a Chinese wedding? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.
- What should I wear? Just as donning an all-white dress to a Western wedding is frowned upon, wearing red is best avoided at a Chinese wedding. The bride will change into a red dress at some point in the festivities, so it’s best not to upstage her. Somber hues like dark blue, black, and grey are not advised as it can symbolize bad luck, death, or mourning for the marriage. Warm tones like purple, peach, and pink, however, are welcome as they signal new life and happiness.
- Should I bring a gift? Instead of a gift registry, it’s customary for guests to present the wedding couple with a red gift envelope containing money. The envelope should be decorated with auspicious characters - such as happiness and wealth – and containing a sum in even numbers and preferably containing the numeral 8 as it means prosperity in Chinese. Avoid giving odd numbers, or amounts ending in 4s.
- How should I give the red packet? Before entering the wedding banquet, guests should hand over the red packet to a bridesmaid who will take note of the amount of money received in a record book. If the bride and groom are later invited to their guest’s wedding, it is expected for them to gift them a higher sum of money than they were given.
- If I prefer to give a gift, what should I avoid giving? The gift needs to be at the same value as the intended red packet. It cannot be anything that symbolizes the numeral four or involves four items as the number means death. Consider giving a couple’s massage voucher or an experience they can enjoy together. For relatives, fine jewelry, gold, and diamonds are also acceptable.
- How long is the ceremony? It can last anywhere from four hours to three days depending on how many Chinese wedding traditions are observed.
Read on for the most common traditions and practices you'll see at a Chinese wedding.
Known as the Guo Da Li, before the wedding ceremony the groom will present betrothal gifts (gold jewelry, dragon and phoenix wax candles, tea leaves and sesame seeds, wine or brandy, etc…) symbolizing prosperity and good fortune as a formal proposal to the bride’s parents. They, in turn, will return half of the gifts as an acceptance of the proposal and show that they wish to have a good relationship with the groom’s family.
Choosing the Wedding Date
The date of the wedding ceremony isn’t chosen by chance. “Many couples consult with a fortune teller, Chinese monk, or Feng Shui master to choose an auspicious date to bring success to their marriage,” shares Froelich. The couple’s Chinese zodiac sign, birthday details (the bride’s birthday is preferred to the groom’s) will play a big role in choosing a date that is the perfect fit.
The Chinese wedding invitation is typically red with gold lettering and bears the Double Happiness symbol. Inside, it’ll include dates for the wedding banquet, order of birth, and names of the bride, groom, and respective parents. Details for the dinner venue, the timing for the cocktail reception and dinner will be included as well. For weddings where guests may not be familiar with Chinese customs, a red packet may be included with the invitation.
Preparing the Marriage Bed
The An Chuang usually takes place on an auspicious day and time, two to three days before the wedding. “This tradition is carried out by a female relative of good fortune—one with parents, husband, children, and grandchildren—where the bed will be dressed in new red color beddings and pillows with a mix of dried fruits and nuts such as longans, persimmons, and red dates,” explains Yu. The combination symbolizes a sweet and long-lasting marriage blessed with fertility and well wishes. Yu also explains that no one can sit or sleep in the bed until the couple returns together at the end of the night of the wedding.
Hair Combing Ceremony
A ritual performed the night before the wedding to symbolize the couple entering a new stage of adulthood in their respective homes. The bride and groom will shower with pomelo leaves to cleanse off bad spirits and change into new red clothes and slippers. The bride will sit in front of a mirror (or a window), while the groom sits facing the inside of the house. The respective parents will prepare a pair of red taper candles and scissors, one stick of incense, a wooden ruler, a hair comb, and red yarn with cypress leaves.
A woman of good fortune will light one stick of incense and a pair of red taper candles and start the hair combing ceremony. While she is combing the hair, she will recite blessings to the bride or groom:
May the first comb bring you a long-lasting union
May the second comb bring you a harmonious union
May the third comb bring you an abundance of descendants
May the fourth comb bring you prosperity and longevity
After the bride or groom’s hair is combed four times, the woman of good fortune will clip the red yarn with cypress leaves on their hair and the ceremony is officially completed.
Lucky Colors and Auspicious Symbols
Red and gold play a critical role in all Chinese wedding decorations. The former is linked to love, success, happiness, prosperity, luck, fertility, honor, and loyalty, while the latter is a symbol of wealth.
The Double Happiness symbol, composed of two identical Chinese characters meaning joy, appears in all Chinese weddings. “It can show up as traditional decor, made out of fresh red roses as a wall hanging for the tea ceremony, or as neon signage for an after-party,” shares Froelich. Other auspicious symbols include dragons, phoenixes, and mandarin ducks as they denote happiness and loyalty. A 24 karat gold pig necklace (pigs are emblems of fertility) is often gifted to the bride as part of her wedding jewelry to wear immediately.
Picking Up the Bride
While Chinese wedding traditions have modernized and no longer involve a large procession, the journey to pick up the bride is still a lively affair. It can involve anything from the use of firecrackers, playing of drums and gongs, or even a lion dance troupe. A child usually walks in front of the procession together with the groom to symbolize fertility.
Putting the Groom to the Test
Chuangmen, also known as door games, is a key highlight of the day’s festivities. “These days the games have been modernized with fun tests,” explains Froelich. “Typically they’re prepared by the bridesmaids to test the groom’s determination to marry the bride and to win approval from the bride’s family.” The tasks vary but typical games involve testing the groom’s knowledge of the bride, eating something spicy, sour, bitter, and sweet to prove that he can go through every stage of marriage, and at least one challenge that involves pain.
The groom will also have to hand over a red packet with money for the bridesmaids to “surrender” their friend. Only upon winning all challenges will he be allowed to enter the bride’s room where the final challenge is to locate the missing bridal shoe to put it on the bride’s foot, and then carry her out to the living room for the Chinese tea ceremony.
Offering Tea and Paying Respects
“The Chinese tea ceremony (Jing Cha) is an imperative tradition to be performed at Chinese weddings,” shares Yu. “This is the time the bride and groom express their respect, gratitude, and appreciation for their parents’ love, support, and effort in raising them.” The ceremony takes place at a single location, or separately at the bride and groom’s respective homes. A red tea set with a Double Happiness symbol is used for the tea ceremony where black tea is sweetened with dried longans, lotus seeds, and red dates.
A bridesmaid or a lady of good fortune will give the teacups to the couple who will kneel (or bow) and serve tea to the parents (the groom’s family will be served first) uttering the phrase “please drink tea.” After each takes a sip of their tea, the couple will be offered a red envelope with money or gold jewelry to bless the union, and as an official welcome to the family. The couple will then serve tea to the paternal side grandparents, the older uncles/aunties, younger uncles/aunties and followed by their older married siblings. They will repeat the same order for the maternal side of the family.
The Exchange of Vows
Depending on the couple, the ceremonial exchanging of vows may take place at a local government office, or in an intimate ceremony where the couple stands in front of the family altar to pay respect to ancestors and conclude with a bow to each other. Some couples also choose to have a Western-style wedding, complete with a white wedding dress and walking down the aisle.
The Wedding Banquet
A lavish eight-course affair hosted by the couple’s parents. The evening’s menu consists of symbolic, auspicious foods, a fish course for abundance, a suckling pig to symbolize the bride’s purity, a poultry dish (usually chicken or duck) for peace, unity, and a sweet lotus seed dessert for fertility. The bride will change into a red qipao (long Chinese wedding dress) halfway through the banquet, a slideshow of childhood photos from both sides is a must-do, as is the raucous “yam seng” (cheers) toast made towards the end of the reception to congratulate the groom on winning the hand of his bride.