Chinese Weddings: How to be a Great Guest
We all know the feeling when you receive a wedding invite in the mail. First, you think: “That’s wonderful! What a great couple. I can’t wait to celebrate their marriage!”
Then the questions come:
What am I going to wear?
What gift should I buy?
Can I afford this?
Are they going to invite my ex to the wedding too? (always a dreaded question)
Chinese 婚礼 (hūn lǐ) – weddings come with their own unique set of questions and worries. And, while being a foreigner usually gets you an automatic get-out-of-jail free card for any faux pas, it’s great to brush up on your knowledge of Chinese wedding culture and etiquette beforehand.
Use this handy Chinese wedding guide I put together. You will impress the happy couple and you’ll enjoy the Chinese wedding ceremony experience too!
Chinese and Western weddings: 3 key differences
One thing I love about Chinese weddings is that they are a great mix of traditional customs, Western ideas, and things that are unique to modern China.
So, some parts of the day will feel familiar to you, others definitely won’t!
The three biggest differences you’re likely to notice as a wedding guest:
1. The wedding photos
All of the Western weddings I’ve been to involve at least an hour of bride and groom (and guests) wearily posing for photographs. Luckily, Chinese couples avoid most of this by taking their 婚纱摄影 (hūn shā shè yǐng) – wedding pictures two or three months before the big day.
In fact, this is one of the most important steps for an engaged couple – they’ll hire a team of professional photographers and rent a variety of dazzling outfits to create amazing pictures.
The photo shoot usually takes place at a famous local beauty spot, although some couples are more adventurous – like the one in this picture!
At first, I thought taking wedding photos months before actually getting married was a little strange, but now I think it’s great!
It means you don’t need to worry about it on the day of the ceremony, and the couple can show off the best of their wedding snaps as wedding decorations.
Be sure to comment on how 漂亮 (piào liang) – pretty, and 帅 (shuài) – handsome the bride and groom look in their photos!
Learn how to describe guys and girls in our Intermediate Lessons 23 (guys) and 24 (girls)
2. The ceremonies (and parties)
At a traditional Western wedding, the centerpiece of the day is when the bride walks down the church aisle (to gasps and tears from the guests), the couple makes vows, exchanges rings, and seals the union with a kiss.
This is one area where Chinese and Western weddings are really different.
In China, the ceremony usually takes place at home, and only involves family and really close friends. Customs vary, but may involve the couple serving tea to their parents and relatives, and bowing to show respect for heaven and earth, their ancestors, their parents, and each other.
Conventionally, no rings are exchanged – although in Shanghai I’ve noticed more and more young women wearing huge sparkling engagement and wedding rings, so perhaps this awesome Western import is catching on!
After the ceremony is over, it’s time for the 喜酒 (xǐ jiǔ) – reception banquet (literally “happy wine” – what a great name!). Just like a Western wedding, this usually takes place in a big hotel or restaurant ballroom.
The 喜酒 (xǐ jiǔ) is loads of fun, and mainly involves eating, drinking, and toasting the newlyweds.
Unfortunately, the Western traditions of a hilarious best-man speech and super-cheesy dancing don’t seem to be popular in China…
3. The clothes
If the Chinese bride-to-be loves choosing and trying on clothes and jewelry, a wedding is a dream come true. For other women not so keen on making those decisions, a wedding may be a total nightmare.
Brides typically change clothes at least three times, showcasing a stunning traditional Chinese-style red 婚纱 (hūn shā) – wedding dress (my favorite), a princess-style white Western gown, and a lower-key cocktail or party dress.
All outfits are accessorized with piles of luxurious jewelry and professionally applied make-up.
I have to admit, while I love seeing Chinese brides showing off loads of different outfits, I wouldn’t want to do this myself – it sounds like a lot of work!
One other key difference I’ve noticed is this. As a wedding guest in China, you don’t need to wear formal clothes. While the bridesmaids, groomsmen and parents will usually dress for the occasion, I’ve seen guests in jeans, t-shirts, and even sweat pants!
红包 (hóng bāo) – red envelopes: how much to give?
Chinese typically give 红包 (hóng bāo) – red envelopes full of money, to the happy couple instead of Western-style gifts.
While extremely practical, this does create a dilemma as to how much money to give, which is complicated by traditional Chinese beliefs that certain numbers are lucky, while others are unlucky.
A basic guide is to give even numbers (which are good for couples), but avoid the number four – the Chinese word for four – 四 (sì) sounds like 死 (sǐ) – death, and so is considered unlucky.
Conversely, anything with an eight in it is seen as extra auspicious. Give 888 RMB (about $135 USD) if you’re in China and feeling generous!
As to the actual amount, expectations vary between cities and social groups: my advice is to ask a Chinese friend who is going to the same wedding how much they are giving and give roughly the same.
How to toast the happy couple in Chinese: essential words and phrases
Show the bride and groom that you really care (and impress other guests) by offering congratulations and best wishes in their native language.
Wish the newlyweds many happy returns using the phrase: 新婚快乐! (xīn hūn kuài lè!) – literally “happy new wedding”!
For the parents of the bride and groom, you can say: 恭喜恭喜! (gōng xǐ gōng xǐ!) – congratulations!
Finally, during the inevitable toasting with other guests at your table, don’t forget to say 干杯! (gān bēi!) – cheers!
Side note: this literally means “empty the glass”. But downing your entire drink isn’t usually mandatory. You can even toast with tea if you don’t drink alcohol (or if you’re making sure you don’t have one too many!).
Now it’s your turn! Have you got any great Chinese wedding or marriage advice or stories? Have any questions about an upcoming wedding?