I’d like to begin by explaining the title. The four weddings were actually all for the same couple, but in my role as confused foreigner, it seemed the occasion was split into four episodes. I would like to add that this event probably ranks as the most interesting experience I have had during my time in China. The couple who feature in this story are good friends who both work at the university where I teach.
I did not witness the first/legal wedding, which was only the acquisition of a wedding certificate. This, apparently, was not an important part of the proceedings and took place a month before the other “weddings”.
Chinese wedding ceremonies are traditionally held in the groom’s hometown, which on this occasion was in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province in central China. As an official guest of the bride, I travelled down from Beijing with her parents and brother, who conveniently didn’t speak any English. The conversation, as I sat in between her parents in the back of a taxi, consisted of her father asking me if I was cold because I was wearing shorts (crazy foreigner) and me replying that I wasn’t. Sadly, this banter didn’t fill the whole of the hour-long journey, so after a few attempted comments about the weather, I sat in silence wondering which other topics of conversation I could test run over the coming week.
We caught an overnight sleeper train and on arrival the following morning were greeted by the groom’s extended family, who I struggled to keep track of in the chaos of a large city station on a bank holiday. We were quickly whisked away for a banquet breakfast at a nearby restaurant and before I had a chance to announce that I was full, I found myself in the groom’s house for lunch where the baijiu began to flow.
Baijiu, or literally “white alcohol”, is China’s most famous spirit and is traditionally drunk when making a toast at meals and banquets by people, old enough to know better. It is over 50% proof and tastes revolting. However in China, the amount you can drink is very important with regards to your social status and therefore events often take a turn for the worse when a bottle appears.
One thing I don’t understand about Chinese culture is how everyone in China is not incredibly overweight. Let’s examine the customs. When eating in a group, it is rude if the host doesn’t provide his guests with more food than they could possibly ever eat and then spend the entire meal demanding they eat more. However as a guest, it is considered impolite if you don’t eat food when it is offered to you, thus the options are to either lose face, or gain a baijiu belly. Obviously, being almost completely Chinese now I’ve lived here for a few months, I mustn’t lose face, so the latter is the only option.
Right, back to the story. I shared a hotel room with the bride’s brother in a fairly bleak hotel in a fairly bleak part of Taiyuan. The residential area surrounding the hotel was built to supply a work force for the local factory in the 1950’s, during the period when Mr Mao and the communists were brewing up some of their Baldrick style “cunning plans”, like the Great Leap Forward.
The room itself was perfectly functional and my only complaint would have been that we only had hot water for one hour each evening, which included the day of the major wedding celebrations. Note that this also applied to the bride’s room – imagine that girls, no shower on the morning of your wedding.
Anyway, for all of you who are thinking of having a traditional Chinese wedding, here’s a summary of the principal events:
Bride gets up to begin the application of makeup and installation of a mini shrubbery in her hair.
Bride’s friends blockade themselves with the bride in her hotel room, which has been filled with “double happiness” decorations.
NB. Bride is wearing Dress 1 (a Western style, white dress)
Groom arrives and tries to break into the room with the help of his friends. When this fails, he is forced to bribe the bride’s friends to let him in, by passing small red envelopes containing 10 Yuan notes (~ 70p) under the door.
Eventually, the groom is let in and his next Herculean task is to find the bride’s red shoes, which have been hidden in the room. Obviously there’s no way the bride could possibly leave without her shoes. After a mini-treasure hunt and the distribution of a few more bribes, the groom finds the shoes and, in a Cinderella style ceremony, puts them on the bride.
The party transfers to the bride’s parents’ room where they bow three times and the groom calls them, “Mum” and “Dad”. As a reward, the father of the bride presents the groom with another red envelope containing money (NB. probably more than 10 Yuan).
Just as the couple exit the hotel, they are deafened by dozens of firecrackers being set off, which in turn sets off every fire alarm in the neighbourhood. They enter the bridal car, which proceeds to drive in a big circle as the groom’s house is a bit too close to the hotel.
On arrival at the groom’s apartment, the bridal car is greeted by another 5 minutes of offensively loud firecrackers before the groom has to carry the bride into his parents’ apartment. Unfortunately for him, they live on the fifth floor – poor bugger.
The couple heads straight for the groom’s bedroom, only to find the groom’s mother already in there. She presents the bride with Dress 2 (traditional Chinese, red wedding dress), some tacky couple gifts (e.g. matching mugs, slippers, etc.) and some more money in a red envelope.
The bride and groom go into the sitting room and meet the groom’s Grandma and parents. There’s more bowing and handing out of money in red envelopes.
The newly weds and guests board the bridal convoy and head to a restaurant in town. The foreigner who has been an innocent onlooker for most of the time ends up sitting next to a vomiting child during the 30-minute journey. Charming.
The fleet arrives at the restaurant and surprise, surprise, another onslaught of brain-numbingly noisy firecrackers. Hundreds of random people arrive and pile into a huge, smoky room.
The speeches take place on a small stage, complete with cheesy background keyboard music, indoor fireworks and the obligatory bubble machine. Also, as is the case with all microphones in China, it is essential the reverb is turned up so high that it sounds like the ceremony is taking place in the world’s largest cave.
The ritual continues with more bowing and the couple presenting their parents with glasses of red wine. Finally, the couple, after declaring their love for each other, each simultaneously down a glass of red wine while spinning around in an embrace. Tear forms in the corner of the foreigner’s eye but this could be from the smoky atmosphere and overuse of the bubble machine.
The banquet, at last, begins and the bride appears in Dress 3 (attractive, light blue qipao). Countless numbers of dishes appear on the table and as the afternoon progresses, foreigner is haunted by various bands of uncles, cousins and friends “gan bei”-ing him (toasting, or literally “dry glassing”, him) armed with bottles of baijiu.
Foreigner is amazed at how the bride and groom are still standing when they have been walking around toasting every table. It turns out a common trick played by the newly weds is to have their own “special” bottle of baijiu for the toasts, which actually only contains water. Clever.
The banquet continues until the last guest stumbles home.
The wedding ends.
Congratulations if you made it to the end.
Until next time, yours hazily,
p.s. Please note that this tale was based on actual events that occurred in Taiyuan, China in 2007, however my memory is at times a little hazy thanks to China’s gift to alcoholics anonymous, baijiu.
See also Lao Beijing Blog
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