Singaporebrides | Weddings 101
Combing the Hair… and Other Chinese Wedding Traditions
Preparing for Chinese wedding traditions can be daunting to many Singapore couples who don’t know the first thing about them. Don’t fret, brush up on your knowledge with our guide!
Getting married is no small issue; it’s a lifelong commitment. You don’t want to take any chances. You’d do whatever it takes to make sure the marriage lasts – even if it means going through traditional Chinese wedding customs that don’t seem to make any sense to you. Yet, it is these very customs that evoke that sense of solemnity befitting such an important step of one’s life. Every one of these customs has a special meaning behind it – do you know what they are? Let us guide you through some of the more common ceremonial essentials and the meaning behind it.
The matchmaker is usually a middle-aged woman with a gift of the gab. This was exceedingly important in the past as it acted as a channel of communication between the two families and to facilitate the negotiation of essential wedding details such as the amount of dowry and the size of the wedding banquet.
Matching of the birth dates
Water will put out fire, and wood will turn soft in water. Physics? Far from it. These are the ancient rules of horoscope matching. It is more than matching the animal that rules the year of birth; it is all about the month, day, and time of birth, and the element you belong to. It is still a widely held belief that the marriage of two people of clashing birth dates will end up in tragedy.
To ensure that even the gods are smiling on your wedding day, pick an auspicious date and time for your wedding based on you and your partner’s birth dates.
Engagement essentials (and we’re not talking about diamonds)
The presentation of betrothal gifts to the bride’s family on an auspicious date is still very widely practiced today. The betrothal gifts usually includes a dowry of a token sum of money, betrothal jewellery of four different items of gold (otherwise known as the Si Dian Jin – a bracelet, necklace, ring and a pair of earrings, according to the Teochew practice), bridal cakes, mandarin oranges and liquor. Families who are more traditional will also include two pairs of red dragon and phoenix candles.
Although these items are betrothal gifts to the bride and her family, the bride’s family does not keep everything. Some items, such as the pair of phoenix candles and a few boxes of bridal cakes, are returned to the groom’s family. The remaining bridal cakes are then distributed among the bride’s relatives and friends, along with the wedding invitations.
The bride’s dowry
As soon as the engagement is over, the bride can bring her dowry over to her new home. Typically, a bride’s dowry will include practical items such as bed sheets and pillow-cases (no doubt in a bright fiery red) and one very important item – a spittoon. A spittoon was what we call today an ensuite bathroom back in those days, but now, its function is purely ceremonial. Aside from these, jewellery and presents from relatives also form part of a bride’s dowry.
Setting the bridal bed (no naughty ideas here!)
Another custom that is still widely practiced today is the setting of the bridal bed. It involves a person of good fortune, usually a woman who has plenty of children, and the moving of the bridal bed at an auspicious time. Then, a red tray of dried food like lotus seeds, longan and lychee is placed on the bed with an ang pow. A young boy is then invited to jump on the bed to bless the couple with fertility, completing the ritual. Thereafter, no one is supposed to touch the bed except the wedding couple on their wedding day.
The hair-combing ceremony is usually held on the eve of the wedding and in the couple’s own separate homes. After changing into a new set of pyjamas (in addition, the bride will also have to put on a new pair of bedroom slippers during the whole ceremony), the bride and groom will then pray to the heavens and their ancestors before the ceremony begins. Do take note that the bride is required to face out of the house while the groom faces in. Their respective parents will then comb their hair 4 times while reciting this ancient litany:
An English translation of this would read:
May your marriage last a lifetime
May you be blessed with a happy and harmonious marriage until old age
May you be blessed with an abundance of children and grandchildren
May you be blessed with longevity
After which, the couple has to eat glutinous rice balls as a symbol of togetherness. Besides blessing the bride and groom, the hair-combing ceremony also symbolises the coming-of-age of the bride and groom. This explains why most Chinese parents only consider their children adults when they get married.
Fetching the bride
Ah, the actual wedding day now. If a matchmaker has been involved so far, there’s no reason for her to stop now. On that auspicious wedding day, the matchmaker accompanies the groom to fetch the bride from her house. A male member from the bride’s family will open the bridal car’s door and receive an ang pow from the groom just for doing that. The groom will then face off with his bride’s legion of bridesmaids who have come up with several tasks for him to perform before he is permitted entry into the house. This serves as a test of the groom’s sincerity and determination to get to his bride. Even so, entry is not permitted after the groom completes all the tasks. Entry is only permitted when the groom “bribes” the bridesmaids with a huge ang pow (an important note to all grooms: prepare lots of ang pows – you’re going to need it) at the end of the tasks.
When the groom finally makes it through the doorway, he presents more gifts to the family. Of course that’s not what he went through all the trouble to do. What he really came for was to present a bouquet of flowers (back in those days, this was a red cloth) and to lift that veil to see his bride, and finally bring her back to his home.
On the way to the bridal car, some families practice the tradition of having a female relative shelter the bride with a red umbrella, while another will throw rice grains into the air to ward off evil spirits.
The tea ceremony
One of the most important Chinese wedding custom, the tea ceremony is where you’ll be formally introduced and accepted into each other’s families. Tea brewed from longans and red dates is served first to the couple’s parents, followed by their other relatives in accordance to seniority. Most couples kneel during the tea ceremony as a sign of respect and gratitude towards their parents’ love. In return, their parents and relatives will gift them with gifts such as jewellery or ang pows as a token of blessing bestowed by their seniors.
Going to the groom’s house
Before the bride enters the groom’s home, his parents will have to “hide”. Not doing so is believed to have adverse effects on the couple’s relationship in the future. To avoid direct contact, the bride will first go back to the nuptial chamber (or, just simply, the bedroom) before coming out to meet her in-laws.
Chinese wedding banquet
The wedding banquet is the highlight of every Chinese wedding. If you’ve been to one, you’ll know that a Chinese wedding banquet is often times a noisy affair with all the “yam-sengs” going around. During a Chinese wedding banquet, people shout “yam-seng!” while toasting, making it a very noisy affair. Although noisy it is essential to the wedding. The noisier it is, the more hearty and sincere the wishes are, or so the logic goes. At the end of the day, “yam-seng” or the wedding toast is a gesture of politeness and blessing the couple with a happy marriage.
Traditionally, the couple link arms and drink from nuptial cups of wine. Now, it’s mostly a tease session by the couple’s cruel friends. So, remember to invite only kind people who wouldn’t dream of making fun of you.
Too many homes you say? Well, in those days, when girls marry, they leave their own families forever and the third day after the wedding is considered their official last day home. Brides return home to show their families how happy they are (even though it’s only the third day).
So there you have it, a break-down on some of the more common Chinese wedding traditions you’ll be following on your big day.