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Old-styled Han Marriage Customs

For the Han Majority Ethnic Group living in China's capital of Beijing , new- and old-style marriage customs exist side by side. This particular article will focus on the old marriage customs practiced by Han people in Beijing.

A traditional old-styled Han marriage in Beijing usually involves four procedures: the engagement, betrothal presents, the dowry, and the wedding ceremony.

Engagement Certificate

Exchanging engagement certificates is regarded as a ritual of engagement. In old Beijing, parents the marriage was usually settled by parents (with the help of matchmakers).

For example, usually, the matchmaker would introduce the girl (or most often, a photo of her) to the boy parents, who in turn would tell their son. The matchmaker would also introduce the boy to the girl's family in the same manner, though in no particular order. If both the girl and the boy showed interest in each other, they would ask for a meeting, which the matchmaker would arrange at a proper place.

If no defects (both physical and mental) were found in the boy and girl, engagement certificates (indicating the year, month, day, and hour of each person's birth respectively, and consisting of one Heavenly Stem and Earth Branch, which refers to the counting system of the Chinese lunar calendar) would be exchanged on a particular date, which was also arranged by the matchmaker. In most cases, the boy would present a certain keepsake, usually something much valued by the boy's family, such as a ring, a bracelet, or a Gold Ruyi (a kind of good-luck home ornament), together with the engagement certificate).

There were red and green engagement certificates, for girls and boys respectively, on which were printed yellow phoenix-dragon patterns. Once the matchmaker handed over the boy's engagement certificate and keepsake to the girl, and brought the girls' engagement certificate to the boy, the engagement procedure came to an end, and was to be followed by the presentation of betrothal gifts.

Presenting Betrothal Gifts

Presenting betrothal gifts involved informing the girl's family of the wedding date, and giving the girl the clothes and jewels to be worn on the wedding day, with some money and other gifts. Usually, the girl's family would give the boy a hat and shoes or stationery in addition to some dowry.

The gifts included: fresh fish, pork legs, mutton legs, and some snakes, all of which were carried to the girl's family under the escort of two matchmakers, a male and a female. When the wedding ceremony was over, the girl's family would give the two matchmakers a pork leg and a mutton leg to show their gratitude.

Carrying the Dowry

One or two days before the wedding date, the bride's dowry, including furniture, bed-ware, and other trivial things, such as bells, lamp, and tea sets, would be carried to the bridegroom's family under the escort of the bride's family members or relatives.

The number of dowry varied in amount, but usually was enough to fill between 16 to 32 trunks, depending on the economic condition of the bride's family. The dowry were either carried by two men or shouldered by one. If the amount were less then 16 trunkfuls, porters would be invited instead.

Apart from the two matchmakers, two or four male relatives would also serve as the escorts. Once moved to the bridegroom's home, the dowry would be placed in the bridal chamber and checked by the escorts. Some families would even invite drummers and buglers to perform outside the chamber, which was called "resounding the bridal chamber."

The Wedding Ceremony

Marriage has always been considered a grand occasion in Chinese history. Therefore, the master of the wedding ceremony would often send invitations to friends and relatives.

Usually, a big sedan chair carried by eight men was used to bring over the bride, which was headed by a procession of flags and fans of different types, pairs of seat umbrellas, and 24 or 32 buglers and drummers plus some wind instrument players. If the bridegroom went to bring the bride over himself, another such sedan chair would be used, which went before the one for the bride. The escorts (including the two matchmakers, the groomsman, and the ceremonial masters) followed in the rear of the wedding procession.

The bridegroom, dressed in a traditional wedding suit -- a long blue robe, a black mandarin jacket, a small hat, and a pair of black and soft-soled official boots, with a band of red silk draped across his shoulders --, was accompanied by his groomsman, who would also help him in and out of the sedan. Once the bridegroom arrived at the bride's family, the senior relatives would drape another band on him.

After arriving at the bride's home, while the bridegroom was greeting the ceremonial master of the bride's family and inviting the bride into the sedan chair, the ceremonial master would deliver congratulations on the side. For example, he would say, "Welcome the bride into the precious sedan, welcome…" After the master repeated this three times, the matchmaker would help the bride into the sedan.

The sedan chair for the bride would be carried right in front of the hall, where the wedding ceremony was to be held. In the center of the hall was placed a table, on which candles had been lit and incense burned. Once the bride and bridegroom entered the hall, they had to make three bows, which was the most important part of a traditional wedding ceremony. The new couple needed to stand side by side, and make three bows. The first bow was to the heaven, earth and ancestors; the second, to both parents, and the third, to each other.

Once the three bows were completed, the wedding ceremony came to an end and the newlyweds were sent into the bridal chamber, where they would drink the wedlock wine, and, after an exchange of toasts and drinks, retire to bed to consummate their marriage.

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