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Published on Jul 25, 2013 in Asia, China, News

The Chinese Wedding

It’s common for myself, and my partner Dave Dodge, to receive quite a number of phone calls and e-mails in the course of our day asking our advice on various subjects with regards to China. Some of these questions are fairly straightforward, such as how do I make sure the financial data given to me by my Chinese partner is accurate? Other questions are more serious, such as how do I protect my intellectual property? Spending more than a decade working with Chinese companies, Dave and I will offer our advice, or refer them to a professional, such as an attorney, who we know can assist them. In addition to questions on business, over the course of time we’ve received more and more e-mails asking us to explain various aspects of Chinese culture. When I receive an e-mail like this I’ll generally make a notation in a spiral notebook I keep on my desk and, eventually, I’ll write a blog or newsletter on the subject. In the past two weeks, for some reason, I received two separate e-mails requesting that I write a blog on weddings in China. Taking the hint, below is a description of both the civil and the traditional wedding in China.

Getting married in China is fairly straightforward. A couple wishing to tie the knot simply goes to the government office that issues marriage licenses, fills out a registration form, presents their national ID cards, and the original and a copy of their hukou, a family record that identifies a person as a resident of a particular area, their marriages, spouses, and other pertinent family information. They’ll also need a joint photo of themselves in standardized size that’s a little larger than our passport photo. When the clerk at the government office receives this information he’ll go into the government database and check to see if either of the applicants is already married and, if not, he’ll process the marriage license. He’ll then apply a government stamp to the form the couple signed and attach their picture. That’s it – you’re married! There’s no oath or waiting period. The process can be completed in as little as 15 minutes.

The marriage license bureau will have days where there are only few couples who get married, while other days they’ll be a wait that may last hours. The reason for this is that the Chinese are generally superstitious. For example, they don’t like the number 4 in their cell phone number, if they can avoid it, nor do you normally see the number 4 in elevators, much as you don’t see the number 13. The reason is that the pronunciation for 4 in Chinese is similar to the pronunciation for the word death. Similarly, when someone is getting married, May 20th seems to be a banner day as the pronunciation for this date is similar to the pronunciation for I love you. Everyone loves the sound of that.

There are also wedding ceremonies in China that are more traditional and that are don’t involve going to a government office to obtain a marriage license. They’re more for show and these services are generally not recognized by the government. Unless both the man and woman both sign the marriage document in the government office, as well as adhere to other legal requirements, they’re not officially married in the eyes of the government. Subsequently, a ceremonial marriage service carries no legal weight with the government. What that means is that, if a couple decides to someday divorce, and they did not have the civil service, there’s no protection under the divorce laws for distribution of the assets. In fact, in the eyes of the Chinese government, they were never married. Carrying this further, let’s say that a couple gets married in a traditional, but not a civil service, and the husband leaves his “wife” and goes to live with someone else. He likes that person and decides to marry her. He and the other woman can simply go to the marriage license office and provide the documentation mentioned above. After the clerk verifies that both parties are not registered as being married, he’ll issue a marriage license to the new couple. In the eyes of the Chinese government, the man was never legally married in the first place, and therefore he’s free to marry anyone he wishes.

Wedding receptions in China are not exactly the same as in the U.S. In fact, they may not even be held the day of the traditional or civil wedding. Or, for that matter, even in the same year as the wedding. Let me explain. Chinese wedding receptions are grand events and, as such, they’re expensive. Couples will save up for such a reception. It may take months, but I’ve seen it take 1-2 years in some cases. Chinese couples usually want a blow-out reception and they’re willing to bide their time to save enough money for this event. Also, the accompanying photo album, which couples traditionally order, can be very costly.

Besides saving for the cost of the reception and photo album, there are other reasons that a couple may delay their reception. The most prevalent reason is that the new bride is pregnant when the couple got married. In that case the bride wants to look good at her reception and in her photos. Subsequently, she’ll wait until she has the baby and feels she now looks the way she wants for her photos.

Chinese wedding attire, at least traditional attire, rather than what one might wear at a civil ceremony, mimics Western dress. By that I mean that the man tends to wear a suit and the woman a white wedding dress.

Some Chinese couples, however, have still clung to more traditional wedding attire and customs. For example, in more traditional Chinese weddings, red is the central color. Even the bride’s wedding dress, wedding invitations, and wedding gift boxes are red as this is meant to signify love and prosperity. In addition, the wedding date is not chosen arbitrarily. Instead, it’s chosen according to astrological signs. An astrologer will tell the couple which dates are good for their marriage, and which dates should be avoided. Also, it’s customary for couples to be married between half past the hour and on the hour as their marriage will then begin on the upswing, while the hands of the clock are moving up, rather than down.

In a more traditional Chinese non-civil wedding, the groom will see the bride before the wedding, arriving at the bride’s house on the way to the ceremony. Often the couple will serve tea to both sets of parents while kneeling in front of them. This is a symbolic gesture of asking for permission. The couple then leaves for their traditional wedding service. Between the wedding and the reception the bride will normally serve tea to her in-laws in a formal reception.

The traditional wedding service itself is usually attended by only the immediate family.

Marriage in China became a custom between 402 and 221 BC. In ancient times, long before computerized record keeping and e-mail, there was only hand delivered mail. All communication was through formal letters. During this time the parents were in charge of the matchmaking and social status played a big part in determining who you married. For example, people tended to marry within their class with poor girls marrying into poor families and rich ones into wealthier households. In fact, in ancient China marriages were sometimes arranged while both the bride and the groom were very young or, perhaps, not yet born. However, this was an imperfect system as sometimes one family would lose social prestige or not produce an offspring of the opposite sex. Whatever the outcome, arranged marriages were the norm in dynastic China.

The bride and groom’s family didn’t communicate directly. It was customary during this time for the the groom’s family to hire an elderly lady to act as a spokeswoman for the family.  She would negotiate between both sides and try and persuade the bride’s family to accept the groom’s offer of marriage. Once the two sides agreed, the spokeswoman would obtain what’s referred to as the Eight Letters. In the Chinese calendar 22 letters are used to represent a particular date. Two letters are used to represent each of the following: year, month, day, and time. Subsequently, these eight letters will accurately provide the groom with the bride’s birthdate. The groom will also have his Eight Letters. Both the potential bride and groom’s Eight Letters would then be taken to a fortune teller who would determine if the bride’s Eight Letters and her birthdate matched. If the bride’s birthdate was accurate, then a Request Letter would be sent to the bride’s family.

An arranged marriage formally began with a Request Letter from the groom’s family. This confirmed the arrangement of marriage between parties and was also accompanied with gifts for the bride’s family. A short time later a Gift Letter would be presented. This letter lists the formal gifts that the groom’s family presented to the family of the bride. On the day of the wedding a Wedding Letter would be presented. This confirmed that the bride was now a member of the groom’s family. The wedding date was then selected by a fortune teller with the ceremony itself held on that date at the groom’s house.

Nothing was left to chance in an ancient Chinese wedding. For example, the couple’s bed was placed in a particular place by a man who was said to have good fortune in his life. Also, the night before the ceremony a woman would comb the bride’s hair, and a man the groom’s. The bride, by traditional, will symbolically have her hair combed a total of four times.

China is continuing to become more westernized in its marriage practices, and traditional Chinese weddings are in the minority in China, although some younger people now are going back and reviving some of the older Chinese wedding traditions. Also, what we’ve described above is a wedding between two Chinese nationals. When one of the parties is a foreigner, there’s additional bureaucratic procedures which the foreigner must adhere to in order to marry a Chinese national.

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