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Life-cycle Events: Weddings

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Holidays and Celebrations

Fall Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(3) page(s): 34, 35. 36, 37, and 38

Behaviors at all life-cycle events are changing rapidly, those for weddings among them. Many of these long-practiced festivities are losing their symbolic significance, others are replacing one or another. Those related to the weddings of Han Chinese, the focus of this article, can begin as early as at birth or thirty days thereafter.

One of the earliest in a person’s life, the promise of a partner, can occur before birth, but usually it happens at the one-month birthday, when a Chinese child is considered one year old. While this practice is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, it still takes place in some of China’s remote villages. Food behaviors before and during wedding ceremonies are also changing. Young couples today want to make their own decisions about who to wed, what to serve at the wedding ceremony, what to wear, and more. Therefore, traditional wedding behaviors are in danger of disappearing, and of being forgotten.

Weddings in ancient times did have protocols. They could be plain or fancy, opulent even unbelievably extravagant. Some were simply small family events with very few, even minimal trappings. No matter the economics, it was not uncommon for the families of bride and groom, particularly the former, to spend as much money as they could muster. These economic indulgences had a purpose. They were to show friends, family, and neighbors that this wedding was a wish for a good life for the newly weds. To do less was akin to wishing them a trip on life’s poor ahead. Another reason to spend the utmost was so that the parents did lose face.

Traditional Han weddings often were the most luxurious event in a person’s life. They were unbelievably costly for the parents, and sometimes for other relatives who lent money to help their family bear this burden. Some spent several years income on this particular festivity.

Weddings were so costly in fact, that in more recent times Mao Zedong and others tried to curtail their costs. He despised them as they were signs of class society. He tried to eliminate many of their trappings such as the gift bouquet made up of dozens upon dozens of one hundred yuan notes; he also tried to eliminate many other expensive trappings of family and friends. He railed against the average person spending two to three thousand American dollars on one wedding. In his day, the average monthly salary was about thirty-five American dollars. Imagine the years of debt one wedding incurred. Those families with two or more children were paying back borrowed funds for their entire lifetimes.

Beside the wedding bouquet, popular gifts included washing and sewing machines, video recorders, motor cycles, gold watches, necklaces, and earrings, and bedding, dishes, hundred catty sacks of rice and wheat flour, and expensive foods such as bird’s nests, sea cucumbers, and shark’s fins. To the families of the bride and groom, there were also the thousand dollar wedding banquets. Mao’s efforts may have been somewhat effective in his day, but reducing these expenses since his demise has failed; more often than not, they are even higher now.

In ancient times, such weddings were of great importance to the families of the bride and groom. They were also important to the villages and communities in which they lived because while solemn to parents and principals, and wedding and the wedding banquet was festive, fun, and lots of food to all others. Everyone in the community and towns of both bride and groom were invited; not to do so would lose face big-time.

Why were formal betrothals done when a child was very young? It was done early in life to keep family lines pure and economics protected. While it did both and more, it was not without its problems. For example, when one party died early, the other was widowed for life. If that person or their family wanted to be able to remarry, permission was required of the deceased person’s family. Only after that was granted, could another betrothal be arranged.

Families who had no arrangements to wed made early or ever would hire a matchmaker, also known as a 'go-between,' whose role was to find a suitable mate. Gods, ancestors and astrology were invoked. Then parents were asked for their approval, and if they did, arrangements could be worked out. The potential bride and groom were not considered important enough to be part of the process when the match was made. Furthermore, most did not know about the other until the groom sent gifts to the bride. Some did not even know then, as the presents actually came from his parents.

When the go-between made a match for the groom, his parents received a red paper from the matchmaker. Thereafter, details were worked out. In the olden days, and even for a few young folk today, the principals are not allowed to meet before the nuptials as doing so is considered inauspicious. In some instances, using birth and other dates, the matchmaker even set one or both betrothal and the wedding dates. But before that, a red paper was given to the other family. Both had the task of setting these papers before the ancestral tablets. If nothing inauspicious happened in three days, the match and the dates became final.

Dowry and other details were then finalized. The bride-to-be received some gifts from the groom-to-be and/or his family, and wedding cakes and others gifts were sent to his family from the girl’s family. Common gifts were and are expensive exceptionally thick and crazed mushrooms, fine wines, dried scallops, Jinhua hams, fish maw, and other fine foods, and fine jewelry. These items usually were sent in silver boxes, and often delivered in pairs to show and wish well the upcoming pairing of the two to be wed. They and other items exchanged at this time are spoken of as betrothal gifts.

Note that, for the Chinese, wedding cakes have little to do with the actual day of the wedding. Rather, they are sent to the potential groom and his family. Others are often sent when formal wedding plans are announced outside the immediate family sharing details and dates about the proposed wedding. It is not uncommon, particularly for those paired early, for this matching information to be maintained as a family secret until the parties are grown, and the date of betrothal fast approaching.

Pre-arrangements done, the bride-to-be’s family continues tasks begun soon after birth, such as making bedding and beautiful clothes for the wedding day, other days, and all daily and special occasions in her future life. Setting aside fine teas and fine foods, an so forth.

Wedding cakes, and items already mentioned, are not the only formal announcement of a betrothal. Candied fruit including dates, dried or candied longans, lotus and other seeds and fruits are often not packed in double, but are put in lacquered eight-section boxes, because eight is a lucky number to the Chinese, and given by and to families of the wedding principles. Along with these, dried long noodles wishing long life, dried nuts and seeds wishing many offspring, and bricks of sugar and other sweets are gifted to portend a sweet life. And in addition to these are beautifully presented packages of teas, fine quality dried abalone, hair vegetable, sea cucumbers, shark’s fins, birds nests, and other so-called nourishing foods that have a long shelf life. Beautiful bottles of wine and spirits are sent along, too.

In ancient times, when such a betrothal was made among infants, and for those who had no such an arrangement, the father of a young daughter buried one or more bottles of a fine wine. It was reserved in that manner, to be opened at the wedding dinner of his daughter. Another old custom, more often practiced in rural communities, is that on the day announcing a betrothal, the bride’s family roasts a pig. Some roast theirs or another one on the wedding day. People, mainly relatives, give a live rooster and live hen and as much money as they can afford.

For a while, doweries and other expensive wedding gifts were deemed illegal and inappropriate, even though they were centuries old wedding behaviors. However, these old customs di not go away easily. Away from big cities, they are still a big deal and a big expense, and for some living in large cities, they still are the protocols of choice. These and other gifts in or outside of a dowry are sometimes delivered by the matchmaker. That person’s role varies by region, but it is always more than helping select a mate. The matchmaker might bring the gifts of jewelry, bedding, food, and clothes, combs, brushes, bed heater pans, and other necessities. In some regions, these foods and fancies are delivered or sent to the bride’s new home, in others they trail behind or come just ahead of the red sedan chair she sits in behind curtained windows when transported by brothers or uncles to her new home.

In preparation for that journey, brides-to-be eat and drink little to almost nothing so there is no need to stop the procession to relieve themselves. Stopping this procession for any reason as it wends its way to a bride's new home is considered a bad omen. That is not the only thing a bride-to-be needs do before this change in life and living arrangements.

The week before the actual wedding while family members feast, many brides fast. She needs to remain inside her parent’s home hearing tales of bridal etiquette and how to behave in her soon-to-be-home. She and all the girls in the family, no matter their ages, sit and listen while elders expound on what to do and when. These tales are more admonitions than pleasantries, and are accompanied by sad songs song to each other. They show how the family will miss her, and she sings to them saying that she will do likewise.

On the actual wedding day, or in some cases the might before, the groom-to-be’s parents make a family feast. Some do it for their own family, and some for the bride-to-be’s family. In other cases this feast can be on the wedding day. No matter where it is, rarely does the bride attend. Most brides never eat much before and hardly drink, and they do not participate in any pre-wedding festivities. Many stay in their room alone or with female friends who sing sorrowful songs and minister to her.

The night before the wedding, there can be a special Daoist ceremony for the groom at his home. Then the next morning, the bridal chair, sent to the bride’s home, arrives to fetch her. Her parents stand in front of it until she comes out of her room and bows to them. Her father puts a large red cloth on her head. It is to remain there until after she arrives at her new home.

When the sedan chair does arrive, the mother-in-law-to-be walks around it, and an older brother or uncle carries her from it to the nuptial room to await her husband-to-be. Some families hire a band to serenade the waiting guests singing the bride had arrived.

When the groom enters where the bride awaits his arrival in what will be their bedroom, it is his task to remove the red cloth. That is their first opportunity to see each other. He then leaves and goes to tend to wedding particulars. She stays there alone, kids often peering in the window, and with no food or drink, so no reason to leave that room until the actual ceremony.

Wedding ceremonies vary, depending upon religion and custom; and as there is rarely any food involved, that is not part of this article. But immediately after the actual ceremony, the bride’s first responsibility is to serve tea to her new parents and grandparents, then all elder relatives who will, in essence, be her new bosses. Her new husband can be observer or participant, as that family’s custom dictates. In other families, this tea-serving ceremony with its obvious and subtle signs of obedience is held on the day after the wedding.

After the wedding ceremony, there can be a huge feast, but the bride refrains from attending, while her husband does not. Then, other than the daily tea-serving to the elders and cooking for her new parents and husband, for the first month brides often stay in that room undisturbed, except by her husband, so she can plan her food and tea service to her new family. Elder female family members often come and she serves them tea and gets acquainted.

There is a custom of amusement on that first night after the wedding dinner, when bride and groom are together. His many friends tease them from outside the wedding chamber, and a few best friends actually enter and play games that make them touch each other. Eventually, when all are exhausted, they leave them to bed down and sleep together.

In some regions in China, it is customary that the bride go home to her parents on the third day after the ceremony. She goes there with her groom, and he brings them a roast pig and more gifts to say thanks for this wonderful bride. He bows to them, they share a feast together, and then he goes back to his home alone. Later that night, an elder brother or another male returns her to her new home and then their life together begins in full and she rarely returns to her parents home.

Wedding feasts have lots of animal foods, and lots of dishes made with expensive ingredients. To do less would not be a good idea nor a good omen. Many start with four hot and four cold dishes. These eight items are there so that their life together will be lucky. After these, there are often six main dishes and then four sweet dishes. The latter are to sweeten and smooth their lives together. It is not uncommon that there be two ducks, if affluence allows, as they symbolize mating together for a long life. Also popular is that all the dishes served be sumptuous. After the appetizers, a soup made loaded with shark’s fins is commonplace. Along with the ducks, there can be a whole roast pig, and several noodle dishes wishing them long life. Pomegranates, if in season, are put into the noodle dishes as are nuts and others items that say they should have lots if children.

It was and is still not uncommon that such a feast would cost thousands of dollars. Today, a huge affair is deemed an appropriate rite of passage. Rare is the young couple who does not want many fine foods served, and many friends in attendance. One difference nowadays, is that the bride does attend this banquet. She shows her and her family’s affluence by changing clothes often during the dinner, her sign of extravagance. She is most often dressed in red, and after several changes, the final gown might be white, a nod to western beliefs; certainly not a Chinese notion. Why not, because white traditionally was a sign of mourning.

It is at this affair, that guests come, sign in on the so-called wedding sheet, or bedspread, and it is here that they give the couple red envelopes, and the aforementioned bouquets of bills. For good luck, the couple is supposed to sleep on this their very first night together, then fold and keep it as a wedding memento.

Today’s brides want for their betrothal and wedding gifts, color TVs, refrigerators, washing and sewing machines, pianos, even motor bikes and cars. And they want wedding banquets, that in China cost upwards of two hundred yuan and more per person. As a mony-saving gesture, their many dresses are rented, but that seems to be the only savings considered.

Another new item what saves money, is that sedan chair use has diminished. However, its symbolism has not. One report indicated that a groom grabbed a chicken in his bride’s family home, then chopped off its head, and carried it to his home blood dripping. When asked why, he retorted, this custom will show the brie’s relationship with her family is now cut and she is now mine and not theirs any longer.

An old custom still adhered to by some, is that when the bride first arrives at her groom’s home, she needs to step on a bowl taken from her family. This is placed under her foot and she breaks that bowl. That is said to break her relationship with her family.

Many people in the countryside can ill afford economic lavishness. They set tables or cloths outside the groom’s home and everyone in the village makes some food and sets it out on them for the wedding banquet. This means that everyone in the village attends and joins the festivities; and there is lots for everyone to eat. One elder family who described such a wedding feast, said that the custom was to stay and eat until the moon rises in the east.

While modern marriages are breaking with many ancient traditions. A few ideas do remain. Modern women still want to marry an older and more established man. One study indicated that, and that they wanted them to be taller and more educated than they are. The men in this study wanted shorter women who practiced traditional behaviors but espoused liberated thinking.

When asked about what foods they wanted at their weddings, there were many dishes mentioned including Money rolls, Sweet Lotus Tea, Sliced Abalone and Greens, and stuffed dishes such as stuffed duck, stuffed quails, Harmonious Stuffed Mushrooms with Quail Eggs, and Stuffed Cucumber. We have included a few of these. Use them not just for a wedding, but for everyday enjoyment.
Deep-fried Money Rolls
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon powdered chicken bouillon
1 teaspoon sugar
1 egg, beaten
3 Tablespoons corn oil
1/2 pound chicken livers
3 Tablespoons ginger juice
4 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked for thirty minutes, stems removed, then slivered
1/2 cup bean spouts, heads and tails removed
1 stalk Chinese celery, cut into thin slivers
1/2 cup Chinese chives
3 cloves garlic, sliced and slivered
2 Tablespoons vegetarian oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 large bean curd sheet, cut into six-inch strips the long way, then cut in half
2 cups corn oil
1/2 cup of plum sauce
1. Mix flour, baking powder, cornstarch, chicken bouillon, and sugar, then add egg and mix well. Allow this batter to stand about ten minutes.
2. Heat corn oil and fry chicken livers until they are half cooked, yet still pink in the middle. Remove from the wok and slice, then sliver them.
3. Mix chicken livers and ginger juice and let set for five to ten minutes then add mushroom slivers, bean sprouts, slivers of celery, chives, and garlic slivers. Then add oyster sauce, sugar, and sesame oil, and mix gently.
4. Take one sheet of bean curd and roll about five tablespoons of filling in it. Then dip in the batter and fry in the oil for three minutes or until golden. Repeat until all filling is wrapped with bean curd, battered, and fried. Cut each bean curd roll in half, on an angle, and stand on its end, placing them decoratively on a flat platter, then serve them with plum sauce on the side.
Sweet Lotus Tea
1/2 cup lotus seeds, soaked for two hours
1/2 cup dried longans
1/2 cup dried red dates
1/2 cup slab sugar
1/2 cup pine nuts
1. Bring three cups of water to the boil, add the lotus nuts and simmer for half an hour. Remove pot from the heat and let sit for four or more hours.
2. Add longans, dates, and sugar and bring to the boil, let simmer ten minutes, then remove the pot from the heat, and when cool, add pine nuts. Then refrigerate, if you want this chilled, or serve at room temperature.
Sliced Abalone and Baby Bok Cai
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced, then slivered
2 slices fresh ginger, slivered
2 Tablespoons rice wine
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
2 Tablespoons vegtarian oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 pound baby bokcai
1. Drain, rinse in cold water, then slice abalone thinly, and pound each slice with the flat side of the cleaver.
2. Heat sesame oil and fry the garlic and ginger for one minute, then add rice wine and chicken broth and the cornstarch mixture. Bring to the boil stirring until thickened, then add oyster sauce, sugar, and the sesame oil.
3. Plate the bok cai and pour abalone and all its sauce over it, and serve.br>
Stuffed Sea Cucumber
1 large sea cucumbers
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
4 slices fresh ginger, diced
4 scallions, diced
1 square inch roasted pork belly, diced finely
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1/2 cup corn oil
1 cup peeled, deveined, and diced shrimp
20 quail eggs
1 cup diced roaste duck or goose
10 black mushrooms, soaked, stems removed, and diced
1/2 cup diced bamboo shooots
1/4 cup oyster sauce
1 envelope (one tablespoon) powdered chicken bouillon
1 cup minced greens such as bok cai or spinach
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with six tablepoons cold water
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1. Soak sea cucumbers, just covering with bottled water, until soft, changing the water every three or four hours. It weill take about two days to get them very soft. Keep them covered and in the refrigerator during this process. As soon as possible, probably during the first day, remove any innards, and rinse well with tap water, then continue the soaking process.
2. Put sea cucumbers in a pot and cover with fresh water, and simmer until they have swollen and are soft to the touch. This may take a couple of hours; it depends upon how long they have been dried. Carefully remove them from the water so as not to tear the sea cucumbers, and set them upside down to drain.
3. Heat sesame oil, and fry ginger and scallions for one minute, then fry pork belly and the rice wine for another minute, then remove from the heat.
4. Heat corn oil to about 300 degrees F. and fry the shrimp just until they turn pink. Remove them and set aside. Then fry the quail eggs, and remove and cool them, then shell them.
5. Return the oil to the heat and add the duck, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots and fry for one minute, then drain well. Add the shrimp to this mixture, and the oyster sauce and chicken powder and mix well. Stuff the sea cucumbers.
6. Set them out on a heated serving plate. Put the quail eggs around them.
Harmonious Stuffed Mushrooms with Quail Eggs
1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp, then minced
1 egg white
1 teaspoon mixture of salt, pepper, and chicken bouillon powder
1 Tablespoons minced fresh coriander
16 large black mushrooms, soaked, their stems removed
2 Tablespooons cornstarch
8 hard-cooked quail eggs, peeled, then each one cut in half the long way
1 cup corn oil
1. Mix shrimp, egg white, seasoning mixture, and the coriander.
2. Squeeze water out of the mushrooms, dust each with a little cornstarch, then dust the flat side of the quail eggs with the cornstarch. Place them flat side down on the shrimp mixture; and gently push each one into that mixture.
3. Heat oil and fry the mushrooms, shrimp side down, until tan, about two to three minutes. Drain and serve.

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