The wedding is a once in a life time experience for everyone. This special day is always one of the most important events in life, although it is not celebrated in the same way in every country or even province in China. In some provinces in China, the bride needs to be bought from her parents through offering a lump sum of money (“bribe”) by a future son-in-law who wants to marry their daughter; this tradition is often received with many complaints from the foreigners married in arranged marriages from online matrimonial websites. Therefore, wedding customs vary geographically and they are not even close to the western wedding celebrations.
There is even a custom I experienced during one wedding in Shanghai, in which a virgin boy or girl needs to spend one night before the wedding in the marriage couple’s bed, and this is for the purpose of happiness. I will look at the common practices during Chinese weddings that I experienced as a wedding photographer. Important to mention is that the choice of a wedding day in China depends, in many situations, on the grandfather’s skills to find a ‘lucky’ date for the couple based on the Chinese calendar. If the date is chosen, then the wedding is officially announced among the family members and colleagues and friends..
Arrangements start from getting ready for the day. It is always a surprise to me because I never know what stage the bride is at that morning of the big day. Some brides are very excited, others are relaxed, and another bride can be extremely nervous. At this stage, Chinese wedding and western weddings look exactly the same: however, the Chinese bride and groom have done the signing of the register months before the wedding ceremony.
Chinese brides will not always wear a white dress. In the northern part of the middle kingdom, the bride will wear a red dress and a special attachment on her hair to emphasize the tradition in that region. Getting ready photographs are often some of the most important to capture during the day, as the bride and future wife could go to her past memory through images that remind her of her feelings before the ceremony; these images are usually very candid and not posed, describing the reality of her emotions.
The Door Game
This game happens during every wedding in China, and it is designed to delay the bride’s leaving her parent’s home by stopping the groom from seeing the bride without giving monies as “Lí shī ,” money wrapped in red envelopes, or doing any tasks the bridesmaids or the bride’s friends would like. Therefore, the groom needs to prepare cash or be ready to perform some tasks such as press-ups, painful waxing, etc.
After these troubling games, the groom can finally see the bride for the first time that day and he kneels down to put a ring on her finger. Then another game starts, in which the groom needs to find her red shoe hidden somewhere in the room. It is worth mentioning that the RED colour symbolizes good luck, wealth, happiness, celebration, and joy. Red is often associated with traditional bridal ceremony.
In western culture, the colour WHITE is linked with purity or even virginity. In Chinese culture, it is exactly the opposite; the WHITE colour indicates death and sadness, and this colour is related with funerals and white envelopes given out to the deceased family members showing sympathy for the loss of the dear one. So please do not wear white outfits and do not give any presents wrapped in white paper.
A whole game is just starting behind the door
Green colours point to money and everything which is associated with getting wealthy. There is one exception to this rule – a hat. If you want to be original during the wedding of your friends and wear a colourful hat, please choose a different colour of hat than green because this connection symbolizes that your wife/girlfriend is cheating on you.
The Tea Ceremony
The custom of offering tea to the parents is often named a “tea ceremony,”and this is something that must be done in most weddings in China. This happens in sequence after the groom and bride see each other, starting with kneeling or bowing three times, to the heaven and earth, parents, and to each other.
Secondly, the groom offers tea to the bride’s parents in the bride’s home and the bride does same to the groom’s parents in the groom’s home.
Following the tea ceremony, the couple receive lucky red envelopes filled with money
The acceptance of tea also shows approval of joining the son-in-law or daughter-in-law into the family. After that, a joint meal usually takes place, then the bride and groom as well as their maids leave to the bride’s home before heading to the groom’s home for the tea ceremony.
It is worth mentioning that there is an escort behind the bridal car, consisting of eight of the same cars as 8 symbolizes “luck, good fortune, and wealth” in China. After the tea ceremonies in the groom’s home, all the family members as well as the newlyweds head to the hotel where the banquet will take place. Firecrackers accompany the couple as they are leaving their homes, which is a symbol of a party, new openings, and leaving everything old behind in a similar way to how the fireworks are used during the new year in western culture.
Break – Additional Photography
The time between the homes and the banquet can be very well utilised for the photoshoot, which could take anywhere from 1 – 3 hours. This is important because the couple is relaxed after all the morning traditions which built a tense atmosphere.
I usually use this moment in time for the fashion images of the couple. Without interfering, I ask them some questions to encourage them to open themselves to each other and get some unique images when their eyes are smiling.
The reception usually is arranged in 4-stars or 5-stars hotels with large ballrooms and tall ceilings.
The main show is leaded by an impresario, master of ceremonies, who carries out an event through some custom arrangements, games, or slideshows involving the bride and groom on the scene, as well their parents and friends who give heartfelt speeches. Brides are likely to change their dresses three times during the reception, including the “lucky” traditional red coloured qipao dress.
The tables are usually round and most of the guests participate at thise venue only, and they very often wear casual clothes, which is also a difficult-to-explain habit. The food arrangements look similar as atto the Chinese restaurants and guests will not receive a large plate but will have a nice-course meal on each table. There is no dance floor because there is no such custom in China. A banquet lasts three hours, and it finishes at 2pm or 10 pm, if there is an evening reception.
Chinese couples would prefer their guests to give them money, not presents. There is cult of money in China and newlyweds are not different. If you want to be original and give something special, please think of this gift as future investment for the couple such as a painting or jade or amber sculpture that will increase in value over time.
A small advice: If you want to give a token money gift to newlyweds, please be careful with the numbers of the amount you give to newlyweds, i.e. 2, 6, 8 an 9 are lucky numbers and mean:
2 – “good things always come in pairs”
6 – “very lucky”
8 – “wealth”
9 – “long-lasting”
Please avoid following numbers considered “unlucky” in the Chinese culture:
1 – “loneliness”
4 – “death”
14 – “accidents”, “will die” – many buildings in China do not have 4th or 14th floors associated with very unlucky numbers.
There is also a custom that the guest who is married and who received a token money gift at his wedding from the bride or groom should give a higher amount.
Chinese Wedding Timeline
Timeline of a typical Chinese wedding:
7:00-8:00am – Bride starts with the make-up and dressing, documentary photographer arrives at this time.
7:30-10:30am – Finish everybody’s make-up (bridesmaids, mother, other female guests).
10:30am – The Groom picks the Bride up by knocking on the Bride’s door, The door game and red shoe game take place, then the groom kneels down and puts a wedding ring on the bride’s finger.
11:15am – A small ritual to pay respect to the Bride’s parents (pouring tea for the parents and receiving redpouches from the parents, asking permission to receive their daughter – a good time to take documentary photographs to capture candid moments).
12:00pm – Leaving the Bride’s parent’s house with firecrackers.
12:30pm – Arrival at Groom’s house with the same small ritual (pouring tea for the parents and receiving red-pouches from the parents, asking permission to receive their daughter – documentary photographs).
1:30pm – Leaving from the Groom’s house, roaming in the city for photo-shooting. That is the best time for the photographer and newlyweds to create great fashion imagery with a documentary touch, in the location of their choice.
3:30pm – Arriving in the hotel for more photo-shooting (this is a good moment to involve the couple in taking images in the hotel’s interior).
4:00pm – Wedding Dinner rehearsal
4:30pm – Break time
5:15pm – Receiving guests
6:00pm – Wedding Dinner Ceremony starts, including: slideshow (great images taken during the day), scene arrangements (song, toasts, candles), speeches by parents, close family, and friends.
9:00pm/10:00pm – The wedding banquet is finished; the guests are leaving the venue.
Photographically, it is rather challenging to photograph a Chinese wedding because there are so many arrangements and preparations on the stage, and it changes very quickly.
Summarizing, the Chinese wedding has so many styles and beautiful customs and I really enjoy photographing them as every wedding looks different and every couple is so beautiful!
My name is Gregory Kowalski, and I am a fashion wedding documentary photographer, capturing “real reportage” moments with a great aesthetics of fashion photography is what i love the most!
Available for bookings in China, Macao, Hong-Kong and Worldwide!