Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China/Ceremonies/Marriage


In China a marriage is the outcome of negotiations between the parents, through the instrumentality of a middleman, and it frequently happens that the young people do not see each other until the wedding actually takes place. In Hongkong and the outports the prospective bridegroom is sometimes allowed to see his future wife or a photograph of her. The girl, however, is rarely allowed a similar privilege ; indeed, she is seldom even told who has been selected as her future husband. The middleman, who receives fees for his services, is recognised as a witness to the contract, and is held responsible in any dispute which may subsequently arise in regard to the marriage. He goes to the parents of the prospective bridegroom and hands them a piece of red paper — red being the Chinese lucky colour — on which are written various particulars, such as the date of the girl's birth, her position in the family — eldest, second, or third daughter, and so on — together with the names of her parents and of their native place. The girl is then seen by the mother and other female relatives of the young man, and if they are favourably impressed with her they send a similar piece of paper containing their son's name, date of birth, &c., to her family with an intimation of their approval. The girl's family then interview the young man and make inquiries among his friends and acquaintances concerning his health, attainments, and position in life, and if they are satisfied, they signify through the middleman their willingness that the marriage should take place. A date is then fixed for the sending of the first present, which takes the form of an article of jewellery, some cakes and a few dollars, wrapped in red paper, and the acceptance of the gift by the girl's parents signifies the girl's acceptance of the marriage lines. The dollars really represent the purchase-money, for in theory a wife is still acquired by purchase in China, though the practice of actually buying a wife has been for many years non-existent among the more enlightened upper and middle classes. Nowadays the money is usually returned as "school fees for the bridegroom," the girls parents thereby intimating that they refuse to sell their daughter, but are willing to give her in marriage without price. By so doing they claim for the girl equality with her husband.

In poor families, however, the money is often accepted as a dowry, and for the purchase of the girl's trousseau. All this occurs while the girl remains in ignorance of the fact that the arrangements are in progress, or even if she does know something about them custom demands that she shall pretend that she does not. Though her husband is not of her own choosing she is usually well content, for she sees that all marriages are arranged by the parents, and that the proportion of good matches is quite as large in China as in countries where the difficult task of selection devolves on the young people themselves.


The first present is followed by two other gifts of cakes, and wine, money, and jewellery. Besides the presents, letters are exchanged between the parents of the contracting parties, and these letters, usually three in number, are held to be written evidences of the marriage, and are accepted as legal documents. The marriage usually takes place within about a month after the giving of the last present, but there are certain seasons of the year in which marriages are forbidden by ancient custom. For example, they take place but rarely in the first month of the year, and never in the third, fifth, and ninth months.

On the day appointed for the ceremony the bridegroom's parents send the middleman with a chair, known as the "Fakin" (variegated chair), draped with red silk hangings, to fetch the bride, who is carried in procession to her new home, with banners flying, and amid the music of insistent bands, the clamour of gongs, and the incessant fusilade of fire-crackers. She is arrayed in embroidered red silk, and wears a red veil, which betokens that she has been preserved from the prying eyes of strangers, especially of the opposite sex. When she is carried into the house she is accompanied by the bridegroom, and kneels and bows to heaven and earth and the ancestral tablets and to the bridegroom, who, of course, acknowledges the compliment by returning it. Immediately after this she is unveiled by the bridegroom and is taken to her room. The bridal dress consists of a long coat of embroidered red silk, with a mantle and scarf of red embroidery. The head-dress is a curiously shaped cap, with pearl hangings almost completely hiding the face. The bridegroom is attired in a silk court dress, with two broad ribbons, forming a sash, worn crosswise over the shoulders and breast. The observance of a form of ancestral worship in the family hall, in which the young people take part, is an important feature of the marriage rites. On the night of her arrival in her new home the bride sits down with the bridegroom to dinner, and they celebrate this, their first meal together, by partaking of the loving cup, a vessel usually of silver, but sometimes of pewter. This dinner inaugurates the marriage feast, which lasts two days, and is really a series of festivities. The bride is entertained by the ladies of the household, including the sisters of the bridegroom, but Chinese ideas of modesty forbid her to do more than just touch the proffered dishes at these ceremonial meals. Meanwhile the friends and relations of the family are entertained by the husband's parents, in acknowledgment of the presents which have been received by them. On the third day the bride returns to the home of her father and mother, paying a visit of a day's duration, and in the evening her parents give a dinner to the bridegroom, who is hampered by no restrictions such as are imposed upon his bride. The feasting over, the young people return to the husband's parental roof, under which they are to reside in rooms specially reserved for them. The bride is supposed to provide the furniture and everything required for the household.

The marriage ceremonies which have been outlined are among those more commonly observed in China, and are, of course, subject to considerable variation in different parts of the Empire; but the three essentials — the consent of the parents, the intervention of the middleman, and the ancestral worship in the family hall — are most rigidly adhered to everywhere. Girls are usually married between the ages of seventeen and twenty (in English reckoning, from sixteen to nineteen), and men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one (seventeen and twenty).

When a girl marries she calls her husband's people her family, and her own parents her "outside family." In saying "I am going home" she implies that she is going to the home of her parents-in-law ; she always refers to her maiden home as her "outer home." In this may be traced the influence of the ancient custom which held that when married a woman ceased to belong to her own people, and became the possession, or chattel, of her husband.