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Chinese Minority Weddings, Part I

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Spring Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(1) page(s): 20 and 24


More than one hundred million people make up the Chinese government's fifty-five recognized nationality peoples, sometimes referred to as 'ethnic nationalities,' always called minzu, in Chinese. Seventeen of these groups have more than one million people each, and for any one of them, their population is more than the number of people in quite a few countries.

Courtship, engagement, and wedding practices of the larger groups of minzu are discussed beginning with the Zhuang, the largest nationality population. The foods they use during their life-cycle practices are simple, others are complex. In most minotities, women join the man's family and cook and tend to these and their other needs. In a few, it is the reverse. Some of the brides do not eat for days before the wedding, others sing and dance at one or more of the pre-nuptial events, while in other groups they weep and weep before their weddings.

Some couples have arranged marriages, their parents doing the arranging. This protocol is slowly changing in China's cities, but often remains in effect in the countryside. Many young men and young women spend the rest of their lives with someone their parents selected. A few have romantic gestures or game playing to select a mate, and a few do so after they enjoy one or more free love affairs. Most have banquets to celebrate their weddings, but for some, only the groom attends this feast.

Most ethnic nationality minzu populations had and still have some sort of courtship, engagement and marriage protocols. Most did and still give betrothal gifts mostly to the parents and not to either bride or groom. A few never had nor now have gifts of food or other things. Most grooms no longer include 'bride prices' as some groups used to call them. What is still common is to compare astrological charts of bride and groom, a practice a few call: 'Checking The Eight Characters.' If these indicate incompatibility, then a wedding does not take place.

What follows are traditional courtship, engagement, and wedding behaviors and a few that take place after the wedding itself. Many are not participated in by either bride- or groom-to-be, they are things their parents do.

The use of a go-between or matchmaker, often a woman, is still popular in the countryside. The wedding is a turning point in the life of both bride and groom, and in most, the bride usually leaves her home and family forever, moving just before the wedding ceremony, to join the family of the groom, people she has never even seen before. This move can be and often is nowhere near where her birth family and friends live. In this new home, she assumes the role of tending her new husband's parents needs and wishes. Some say she used to be, and often still is a slave to them. Hence, why so many cry when told they are to marry, and cry lots more before their wedding.

The wedding itself can be held at the home of one or the other participant, as customs in that ethnic group dictate. Women often change their hairstyle, even their type of clothes after they marry. These are visible external signs that she is married. Some couples have more than one wedding, some live apart from their spouse for some time or until there is an offspring. Though these and other differences from the Han or majority Chinese population are waning, they were adhered to and some still are among nationality populations in the countryside.

For example, after a wedding ceremony, or just before it, there are customs of presenting tea to the parents, milk tea for some, drinking wedding wine together, spitting wine on the groom to show who will run the household, beating the bride, or simply serving wine to elders before sharing room and bed before or just after a marriage.

These articles look at a handful of ethnic nationality behaviors in the marital process. Others will follow in future issues, and all together the behaviors of the seventeen largest population groups with membership of more than a million people, will be explored. This and future articles about ethnic nationality or minzu marital events will concentrate mostly about customs revolving around food and drink.

ZHUANG are the largest minority nationality in China. They live all over the country, and odds are that many Han and other Chinese minority people know someone who is a Zhuang, and have been to a Zhuang wedding or another event relating to their engagement or wedding celebration. Why? Because there are more than sixteen million Zhuang in China.

Zhuang affairs have traditional protocols, some include mixed customs if one or the other is a member of another nationality, and for some, particularly modern young people, the wedding is similar to those of Han Chinese. There is one important difference, and that is that while maternal cousins are allowed to marry, even encouraged to, Zhuan paternal cousins may not marry each other. While some young folk do not practice traditional behaviors, particularly if they live in a city, their marriage will be more Han-like than not.

Among Zhuang, males lead households, an item rarely disputed, and young Zhuang rarely seek out their own partners. Actually, it is their fathers who do most marital arrangements for both sons and daughters. If a father of an eligible boy knows of a girl about fourteen or fifteen and he is interested in her for his son, he will send over some pork, a duck, even a bottle of wine.

If the father of the young lady deems it appropriate and is interested, he will slip a red piece of paper with her birth date affixed, and send it back with thanks to the eligible man's father. Next, the boy's father consults a fortune teller to see if both birth dates are astrologically compatible. If they are, a matchmaker formalizes their engagement sending foods from the boy's family to hers.

Often the engagement gift from the groom's family includes ten to fifteen kilos of pork, a like amount of noodles, some glutinous rice cakes, some wine and/or liquor, and two chickens. The girl's family sends gifts, too. These are mostly clothes, silks, and other non-edibles along with a few symbolic foods including two boiled red eggs, two long pieces of sugarcane, and some pomegranates. These are fertility wishes as it is considered an honor to wish the groom's family many grandchildren. After these exchanges, both sets of parents meet with the matchmaker to set the wedding date. In times past, the boy and the girl neither saw each other nor knew of each other. That is slowly changing.

Approaching the wedding date, often just the day before, the bride's maternal uncle comes to her family home bringing offerings of food. He sets them before the ancestral tablets, then returns on the wedding day to comb or assist in combing his niece's hair. He then comes back once more, a day or two after the wedding, or in some cases he sends someone to collect the foods he set before the alter; they are returned to him.

In the past, two sedan chairs and their carriers came to the home of the bride early on her wedding day. They came to collect a red-eyed young woman who had cried and cried at having to leave her home and parents and move to live under the thumb of a family she never knew. The larger of these two chairs is decorated with painted or with real flowers, depending on the season. It is for the bride-to-be, the smaller one with few, if any flowers, is for her female attendant or attendants.

Before climbing into the larger chair, she is fed three mouthfuls of whatever foods were brought from the groom's home, to accompany her. They have been sent from his family. Zhuang say, that when she finishes them, she is a member of his family and no longer part of her birth-family.

To show his authority when she arrives at his family residence, he hits her, usually with three hard whacks, and does so after she steps over and not on the door-saddle of his family home. She rushes to the nuptial chamber with her attendant(s) and faces east, standing all the time, while the groom attends the wedding banquet. When this meal is over, she comes out of this room to meet her new relatives and her attendant(s) leaves. She and the groom spend three days and nights together in that room; and then she returns to her parent's home with him. He leaves in up to three days, and she remains, sometimes until an offspring is born. If no child, no worry, as she can remain with her parents or return to live with his; either is said to be living in shame.

These traditional behaviors are no longer what all young folk do if they live in or near a city; but they were traditional, and many still are done today. Before the wedding, to show he cares and agrees to get married, the groom does consult both sets of parents requesting, sometimes begging approval of a match he may or may not have initially selected for himself. Such an arrangement needs no matchmaker.

MANCHU is the second largest minority population, according to recent census accounts. There are close to eleven million Manchu in China. Believed descendants of ancient Nuzhen tribes who formed the last Imperial or Qing Dynasty, Manchu ruled China from 1644 to 1911 CE. Most of them live in the Liaoning Province, or another of the three in the northeast area called Dongbei. Others might live in the Hebei or Yunnan provinces or in the cities of Beijing, Chengdu, Xian, and Huhhot. Smaller numbers are scattered throughout the rest of China.

This population is reasonably well assimilated with the Han majority, but they do maintain some Manchu traditions, especially for major life-cycle events such as weddings. In the past, weddings were arranged by parents by the time their children were sixteen or seventeen years of age. Now, these youngsters have some say in the process; more so if they live in a city than if they live in the countryside. If they live in a rural area, the boy's family will engage a matchmaker whose first job is to bring a bottle of wine and offer it to the parents of the girl or just to the girl's mother to see if there is interest.

Usually female, the matchmaker will ask the name, birth-date, the astrological sign or look it up, and about the family background. She comes knowing those of the boy and his family. She also needs to know if any military background in the girl's family, an item deemed important to Manchu people. If the mother or both parents are satisfied, the mother will tell the matchmaker: "That is all for today," and the matchmaker will respond, "shall I return?" After the girl's mother consults with her husband and with her daughter, she informs the matchmaker.

There are often two or more other visits, each time bringing a bottle of wine or another alcoholic beverage. If the third bottle is accepted, the match is considered 'made' and after that, the boy's family brings or sends pigs, more wine or harder things to drink, also jewelry and clothing. These become the property of the girl's family.

The next protocol is that the family opens the wine or whatever beverage was sent before the ancestral tablets and two cups are poured the first time both sets of parents are there. Each couple takes one cup, mother and father drink from it and then they exchange the cups with the other family and repeat the process. The boy, if with them or at a later time, prostrates himself before this altar to pay homage to her family and his future in-laws. After this, the couple is considered engaged.

Next, the two families share a feast. It used to be in the girl's home or courtyard, more often now, the engagement is celebrated at a local restaurant. Friends and family members are invited. Later, often a month before the wedding, but it could be the day before or the day of the wedding, the girl's family sends gifts to the boy’s family. These are usually pigs, alcoholic beverages, hairpins, rings, and clothing.

Manchu weddings are traditionally multi-day affairs. On the first day or the day before, the bride-to-be goes to a home near that of the groom, perhaps it is the home of an elder in the community. It can be a place reserved for this purpose. On the next day she goes and visits the boy's home arriving in a covered cart attended by her brothers or other males in her family. Halfway there, eight male escorts from the groom's family meet her party and her brother or a senior male in her group lifts her out and transfers her to the groom's cart. She might jump from one cart to the other but never touching the ground. Then in this groom's vehicle, she is taken the rest of the way.

Early on the day of these protocols, often just before she meets up with the groom's group, he will shoot three arrows at her, intentionally missing, of course. Why? To show he is marrying a woman who does not flinch under duress.

Outside his home, an altar had been placed, and he awaits her. Bride and groom stand before it. It faces north from where their ancestors came, and they offer obeisance to them. Before she can enter his home, the groom-to-be takes a whip or a stick and uses it to lift the red veil off her face. After toasting his ancestors, she walks into his home alone, goes before his family's ancestor tablets to honor them, and in front of it on a table sits a huge chunk of pork, three cups of liquor, a platter, and a sharp knife. She drinks some liquor, eats some food, offers some to him, and then offers some to his escorts.

Outside are family and friends singing songs to the couple. They sing more later in the evening; and they throw black beans into the nuptial room. When ready, the groom walks around this room three times, knocks, and asks if he can enter. When she agrees, he goes in, locks the door, and together they approach a table set there for them. They take the pitcher of wine, pour two cups full, drink some, exchange cups, and drink more emptying their cups. On this table are many large dumplings filled with smaller dumplings. They eat some of these symbols of the many offspring their parents want them to have.

The next morning, together they pay respects to his ancestors and to his parents. On the third day after the wedding, they go visit her family and do the same. She can stay at her parents home or they both can return to live with his family. After a child is born, she permanently moves into the nuptial room and they live with his family thereafter, or he builds her a place near his family.

HUI are the third largest ethnic nationality; there are about ten million Hui people in China. Many live in China's Northwest in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, while smaller numbers live in virtually every province and major city in China. They are the most widely distributed minority nationality in the country. They a faith with many other nationalities and are Islamic, but many do not practice their religion similarly.

The most religious, marry on a Friday, and in a mosque. They do not allow music at their weddings, nor any other form of entertainment. One thing all Hui do at weddings is to give alms to the poor. Another thing most do immediately after the ceremony is for the bride to have an elder woman change her eight braids to just two plaitlets. This used to be done in a special yurt or room set aside for this. It indicates she is a married woman. In addition, before leaving the bride's residence for the ceremony or immediately after the ceremony, or in both places, bride and groom, or one or the other, spread grains around the residence or ceremonial location. It is another indication of giving alms, a practice they strongly believe in.

However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Hui people were formerly called Huihui, and now the Chinese government often says that all who practice the Islamic religion are Hui. That is a general word for followers of Islam, and not technically accurate because there are other Islamic populations that are not Hui, such as the Uygur, Salar, etc. Thus, there is confusion as to who really are the Hui.

Many Hui people live side by side with the Han so many of their specific engagement and wedding protocols are intertwined. For example, to be engaged, parents of the potential groom still hire a matchmaker to propose the union of the man they represent to the parents of a young girl. Rarely do they do so with the girl there. Then, if her parents agree, the boy's family sends gifts, and sometimes visits the girl's family.

It used to be a practice to send five different sets of gifts. These could be clothing the first time along with two kilos of tea. Various groceries and other edibles were common gifts in the second set, and money commonplace in the third. Accepting all these gifts is accepting the upcoming marriage. The fourth set of gifting, often a month before the ceremony, is usually a side or two of beef. Should family economics not allow, then a large leg and maybe a piece or two of clothing might take its place. This meat was and still is beef because Hui and all members of the Islamic faith do not eat pork. They only eat halal or what they consider 'pure' foods, and pork is not one of them. The fifth set of gifts is on the wedding day and called 'leaving the mother' gift. It often includes but is not limited to three kilos of beef.

This last gift can be given after the ceremony or when the groom and best man come to get the bride and bring her to the wedding. It is customary to also bring the bride's family some fifty kilos of wheat. That gift is to tell her parents not to worry, their daughter will eat well.

When two men from the groom's family arrive at the bride-to-be's home, they get three servings of betel nuts, three cups of tea, and some sweets and a cold plate of beef. When the bride is ready to leave, they are served a chicken dish. This tells them she is 'ready to fly' as chickens do. After the chicken dish, they are served a fish dish, and then they can and do leave. Doing so, the bride-to-be is helped into a red sedan chair, the groom goes into a green one. The bride's brother or an uncle holds on to the red sedan chair, and off they go. When halfway there he leaves his niece and returns to her home.

When they arrive at the groom-to-be's home, one or more older women open the curtain and feed a small bowl of red rice mixed with sesame seeds and melon seeds to the bride-to-be. This dish is to indicate his family's desire for her to have an early pregnancy and many offspring. After she eats this, she starts to get out of the sedan chair carrying a copy of the Quran and a red thread. These symbolize her desire for blessings from Allah and wishes to chase way evil spirits. As she is ready to go directly to the door of the nuptial bedroom, the groom rushes over from his sedan chair to escort her.

In that room, she will find red paper-wrapped brown-sugar packets for her to give to all guests that come to see her there. In some families, they throw dates at her as she enters this room. In some, the quilt on the bed will have walnuts, ginkgo nuts, melon seeds, dates, and other seeds, or these five seeds might be stuffed into the corners of the quilt. They, too, are wishes for many progeny.

The actual ceremony will be in a mosque or in a home, with an Iman performing it. Before he does, he will first offer congratulations and then ask if they want to marry each other. After the ceremony, young people gather in the nuptial chamber and tease the married couple, elders are not allowed in. When they finally leave, the groom fastens the door and it is not opened until morning.

MIAO are about nine million in China, and are an ethnic group whose origins some question. The Chinese government designation says they are descendants of ancient tribal federations living in varied regions. Thus, there are many different groups of Miao, and so to discuss their marital protocols is difficult because of this. For example, some young men and women are free to make love before marriage without marriage on their horizon; and many do so. Some after agreeing to or participating in a marriage continue to live apart for up to three years after their wedding. Brides can live with her parents for that long or longer, often going to his home and staying there for some days to help, particularly with planting and harvesting.

Many Miao ancestors lived in the north and migrated south. That is another reason definitive information about them is incomplete. What is known is that most spoke a Sino-Tibetan language that was Romanized in the 19th century.

Many Miao believe themselves an amalgam of some seventy different groups. Nowadays, most of them live in Western Hunan and in the Guizhou province, also in the Yunnan, Guangxi, and Sichuan Provinces. Most Miao men are farmers, many of their women are known for their gorgeous embroidery and batik.

With so many groups, engagement and marital practices vary from village to village, group to group, household to household. Some boys and girls make love and sleep together before marriage, some women live with her or his parents after engagement and until marriage, and others live in her parents home after the wedding ceremony.

In the past, some Miao populations practiced polygamy, men and women slept with one or more others before marriage, others only sang and danced with someone of the opposite sex before selecting a mate; and some Miao had a mate selected for them by their parents. For those that sing, dance, or cohabit, there is often a designated place outside the home where sex is allowed. If one does not exist, a room in the home of the girl can be set aside for this.

Today, Miao speak one of many languages, also practice one of many religions. What is somewhat common among them is to exchange gifts after announcing an engagement. In the countryside, families of the male often give the girl's family one or more live animals. She might move into his family home some days before the wedding, and if she does, she is not allowed to touch any cooking equipment until after the wedding ceremony. For some Miao, this restriction remains in effect until after the first child is born.

Some Miao parents do engage matchmakers, and for those that do, the matchmaker usually proposes to the parents of the girl, not to the girl herself. If a matchmaker is used, he or she will bring a bottle of an alcoholic beverage, some brown sugar, and some dried noodles. If the girl's parents say they approve and the wedding plans can go forward, they drink to marital success and help arrange for the date and dowry.

On the wedding day, the groom himself comes to fetch the bride-to-be. Roadblocks can be set in his way to make him show he really wants to marry this woman. Gifts are given to him then, at the wedding, or thereafter, and they can be animals, alcoholic beverages–especially sweet wine, blankets, and shoes. These gifts have secret meanings to the Miao.

Before the wedding, he stays at her home or a neighbor's nearby, and then he shares a feast with her family, friends, and neighbors. On the third day they go together to his home, feast there, and after that, she dresses for the wedding ceremony. Dressing can include lots of silver ornaments, most from his family, though some can be from hers.

After the ceremony, there is another feast, and that night, bride and groom do not sleep together. Three to five days after the ceremony, she returns to her home with her groom, he usually returns to his home alone after another three days at her home. He can come to get her soon thereafter or any time up to three years later, his choice.

UYGHUR nationality or minzu people also transliterate their name as Uighur or Uygur. They are more than eight million Uyghur people, most of living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This is an area about one-sixth of China's total land mass. The name Uyghur means 'unity' and most of them are united in their religious practices; they follow the tenets of Islam.

They are also united by their history which is coming from several groups of ancient Dingling nomads. Another item of unity is that they speak the same language, called Uyghur; and only recently, after 1949, began to speak China's national language, Putonggua. They learn this and their own language in schools in their autonomous region.

Not much is known about their engagement practices, perhaps as they vary so much. Most marriages are performed by an Imam or Islamic priest, and they can be celebrated with music, dancing, and feasting. Their staple foods are nang, zhuafan, and noodles; and they drink milk tea. They make a congee of oleaster leaves along with dried apricots and dried peaches, and one or more grains, and they eat these foods at their weddings along with other foods.

After the wedding, there is almost always a huge paluo to enjoy with the above foods. It is made with glutinous rice, carrots, raisons, and much mutton; also many different kinds of wheat and corn cakes. There is lots of milk tea to accompany it. Not all Uyghur drink alcoholic beverages, but those that do consume many different kinds and lots of them.

Uyghur marriage feasts can last two days. They begin in the brides home and end in the home of the groom. The ceremony itself starts after the bride has her ten braids redone into two or her hair made into a bun. When the wedding ceremony begins, the Imam asks the couple, one at a time, if they really want to marry the other one. This is an important ritual, because for them, the matchmaker is the mother of the groom-to-be and weddings are arranged by his parents and without input from the bride-to-be or her family. These same questions are asked a second time near the end of the ceremony, and after they are, the marriage is finalized.

The Imam also asks for names of their parents so he can record this event, and he tells bride and groom to respect their elders and be kind to those younger than themselves. He blows air over a bowl of salt water and bread, and someone from each side stuffs some into each of the couple's mouths. They must swallow all of it because this is a sign they will share joys and sorrows together.

There is a second ceremony at the home of the groom when the bride stands on a red carpet and four men carry her to the nuptial chamber. Before this, they or women there distribute gifts to all guests. Before this, when the bride gets to the home of the groom she has to walk through a burning frame to show she is fearless and willing to endure all hardships with him and his family, also that she will stay with him forever. These days there are some, but not many, divorces in the patrilineal kinship in Uyghur families.

One week after the wedding, the couple goes home to her parents with gifts of food given to them by his family. They, in turn, give her husband new clothes, and sometimes food and drink for his family.

Other large ethnic nationality weddings will be discussed in future issues.

                                                                                                                                                       
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