How to GET MARRIED in Ancient China

Today, we essentially see marriage as a special
bond or union that exists between a man and a woman who pledge to become each other’s
husband and wife. But of course, there is so much to it than
just two people publicly declaring their unceasing love and affection for one another and passionately
committing a lifetime of fidelity to their marital partners. In fact, the definition of marriage is not
universal, especially when we put the values, customs and traditions of various cultures
into the equation. And even in the same culture, the intricate
rules and details involving marriage are not the same as they were many years ago, and
the idea of what marriage is and how it is done in a particular country are always in
a constant state of evolution. In modern-day China, the country’s current
law on marriage defines it as a “system” based on three things: first, the “free
choice of partners”; second, “monogamy”; and third, the “equality between man and
woman”. Two people binding themselves through marriage
requires the “complete willingness” of both parties of the opposite sex. Neither of them can be coerced by the other,
and third parties may not interfere in the marriage contracted by these two individuals. But in the past, this wasn’t exactly the
case. Well, not according to the tradition and customs
of marriage in ancient China, anyway. And so, to enlighten us on this subject matter,
I will be discussing in this video how Chinese marriage was handled in the distant past in
terms of the existing traditions and customs of that time. Marriage customs and traditions in ancient
China is a significant part of Chinese culture as a whole and boasts of an extensive history
of more than 5,000 years. Social norms, ethics as well as the aesthetic
standards of people varied from one dynasty to the next, and the same was the case for
the rituals and rules observed by different generations when it came to getting married. The evolution of the marriage customs practiced
by the ancient Chinese people for the last 5,000 years can be divided into five different
stages: the stage of primitive group marriage, the stage of consanguineous marriage, the
stage of exogamous marriage, the stage of marriage, and the stage of monogamy marriage. The primitive societies that once resided
in the land of China did not have a clear concept on what marriage is and were not constrained
to follow rules and observe customs and etiquettes because such things were non-existent at the
time. And so, people did not have permanent spouses
and everyone had sexual relations with other people as they pleased. It was during the middle Neolithic Age that
some limitations ere established, and parents were forbidden from marrying or having sexual
relations with their children. However, “consanguineous” marriage still
permitted the carnal relations between blood relatives, even full siblings. Eventually, marriage between sisters and brothers
who were related by blood were also prohibited, and the options in selecting a spouse were
limited only to potential mates that could be found outside of one’s own family, clan,
tribe or social group. However, in “exogamous” marriages, marital
and sexual relations were not just limited to two people who came from two different
families. In fact, it was not unusual for a woman from
one family unit to be married off to another social group so that she would become the
shared wife of the male siblings in that family. Around the end of the Neolithic Age, the social
norm of group marriages died down and it shifted into the period referred to as the stage of
“antithetic” marriage, during which marital relations became a social pairing between
two individuals. However, this was nothing like the modern
form of monogamy that we know of today as the marital connection between husband and
wife could be easily terminated in an antithetic marriage. There were also remnants of group marriage
at this stage since extramarital relationships of the husband or the wife were still largely
tolerated. Over time, the ancestors of the Chinese people
came to develop social notions of private ownership of property, which soon gave rise
to the concept of monogamous marriage as understood in ancient times. During this stage of monogamous marriages,
society has become more patriarchal, which meant that the husband was the owner of all
the properties of the family, including the woman he married and the children they bore. It became the ultimate responsibility of the
wife to give birth to male children to ensure the continuation of the clan or the family’s
paternal lineage. The rise of a larger and more cohesive society
heralded not only the rise of many ruling states and dynasties in China but also the
development of a more principled, ceremonial and ritualistic approach to marital unions. In Confucianism, a married couple is considered
to be the most basic unit society, and it was believed at the time that getting married
played a crucial role in the cultivation of one’s virtue. More than this, marriage was not seen as a
simple union between individuals; instead, it was deemed as an important family affair
that required the interference of the elders or the senior members of the clan or the family. And because the marriage of one person could
bring benefits as well as detriments to the rest of the family, it became the mission
of the parents and the elders to find the most advantageous marital match for their
children or their descendants. Ancient marriage customs in China for a time
was varied, extensive and complicated, and so it eventually became necessary to condense
and simplify them while also keeping the principal elements of Chinese marriage intact. Traditional Chinese marriage rituals as well
as wedding ceremony customs were discussed in great detail in the old Chinese texts such
as the “Book of Rites” (禮記), the “Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial (儀禮) and the
“Bai Hu Tong” (白虎通). The essential elements of the rituals prescribed
in these venerated texts were then compressed into a marriage process commonly known as
the “Three Letters and Six Etiquettes” (三書六禮). The Three Letters pertain to the three important
documents prepared and used in certain parts of the ancient Chinese rituals of marriage. The first document is the “betrothal letter”,
which is the formal marriage contract entered between the two families whose children are
going to be bound by matrimony. The second note is a “gift letter” as
it contains a list or an inventory of the gifts sent by the groom to the other party,
specifying the kinds of items delivered as presents and their respective quantities. And the final letter is called the “wedding
letter,” through which it is declared that the bride is officially welcomed to the groom’s
residence and is now a part of his family. The six etiquettes or rites, on the other
hand, refer to the cardinal marriage rituals observed in ancient and Imperial China, having
originated from the Western Zhou Dynasty. These etiquettes entail the proposal of marriage,
the matching of bride and groom’s birth dates, the submission of betrothal gifts,
the presentation of wedding presents, the selection of a wedding date and the actual
wedding ceremony. These customs not only elevated the value
ancient Chinese society placed on marriage, they were also filled with ritualistic and
superstitious practices. The process of getting hitched in ancient
China starts with a proposal from the man’s family with the hopes of a subsequent acceptance
from the woman’s parents or elders. This initial part of the wedding process is
usually left in the expertise of a matchmaker who must facilitate the negotiations between
the two clans or families, and make sure that the interests of the both parties are discussed
properly without inciting conflict or bringing humiliation to either side. When the betrothal is brokered successfully,
the go-between acquired rewards for making the match possible. Following the acceptance of the girl’s family,
the matchmaker will gather information about the potential bride and groom, specifically
their respective “four pillars of birth time.” In Chinese astrology, this pertains to the
year, month, day and hour that a person was born. The matchmaker will bring the birth information
of the couple-to-be to a fortune teller, and if the predictions showed a good future ahead
of them, they would then continue to the next phase of the marriage rituals – the submission
of betrothal gifts. At this stage of the marriage rites, the groom-to-be’s
parents prepare the betrothal gifts that would be given to the bride-to-be’s family along
with the betrothal letter that validates the contract of marriage between their two clans. Once these gifts were received and accepted
by the woman and her family, the groom and his family will then make arrangements to
send lavish weddings gifts to the bride’s family as a sign of respect. And since this stage of the marriage process
is also an opportunity to display the groom’s and his family’s ability to provide for
the woman and their future children, this is also considered to be the grandest stage
out of all the six etiquettes. The wedding gifts sent by the man’s family
typically included silver, jewelry, food, cakes, and more. Prior to the actual wedding ceremony, the
two families must first decide on the date of the wedding by consulting a fortune-teller
who will have to refer to a Chinese divination guide and almanac known as the “Tung Shing”
(通勝). Once both parties agree to the date, it is
now the turn of the girl’s family to send dowry to the residence of the boy’s family
before the betrothed couple’s wedding day. Some of the usual dowry sent to the groom’s
house include jewelry, scissors, a ruler, a vase, a silver purse and lotus petals. The last ritual of the six etiquettes is the
wedding ceremony itself during which the man and woman from the two families are officially
bound to each other as a married couple. This stage consists of several elaborate rituals
like the wedding procession, the welcoming of the bride, the actual wedding ceremony
and the wedding banquet. The procession begins from the bride’s home
where she will be welcomed by her groom and will then be carried in a sedan to his residence. The family of the bride will then stop at
the entrance of the bridegroom’s home, and from there, the bride – who is wearing a
red-colored attire and a red cloth that covered her face – will then be led into the residence
with a welcoming and jovial atmosphere. And much like the practice of exchanging wedding
vows in the Western world, it is the practice in Chinese wedding traditions to pay respects
to the deities in heaven and earth, the couple’s parents and elders, and their new spouse by
performing bows or kowtows three times. After this, the couple will then head straight
for the bridal chamber. As for the guests, elaborate and lavish meal
courses await them at the banquet. The day after the couple’s nuptials, the
bride will have to wake up very early to honor their ancestors at the crack of dawn. It is only at this point that the girl is
officially introduced as a member of the groom’s family to his relatives and friends. Three days after getting married, the couple
will then pay a visit to the previous home of the bride, where she will be received by
her parents and other members of her family as a guest.

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