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Most Chinese wedding rituals have been modernised and simplified, but the significance of some traditions remains with a sharp focus on filial piety and family. Here, we explore the customs of a traditional Chinese Buddhist wedding.
Like ancient folklore and grandmother tales, the intricate details of Chinese wedding rituals and traditions are passed down from generation to generation, tightly centering the event on the importance of filial piety and the union between two families. This is symbolised by the Chinese ligature “double happiness” (囍), depicted as two copies of the word xi (喜, meaning “joy”).
Chinese wedding customs are heavily influenced by Buddhist beliefs and Confucian philosophy – some of which overlap with other cultures too, like Korean and Peranakan weddings. When Isabel Lam married Khoo Meng Tat at the Kwan Inn Teng Temple in Petaling Jaya, they opted for a more elaborate Buddhist ceremony while maintaining traditional Chinese customs.
“As far as we know, we’re the second couple to have done this elaborate ceremony at the temple,” says Isabel. Her mother, Sanny Cheang, together with a group of friends are known as Ever Blossom – they offer consultation for such wedding ceremonies.
The Buddhist ritual starts with the bride and groom burning incense to seek refuge from the Holy Triple Gem (The Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha), which is a reaffirmation of their faith in it. This is followed by the sprinkling of holy water by the monk to purify the bride and groom’s body and mind. For most couples, this is part of the simplified version of the ritual, which closes with additional Buddhist advice on family life from the monk before he witnesses the wedding registration.
The ten items offered to Buddha and Bodhisattva.
However, for Isabel and Meng Tat, before the closing advice there was an additional performance of offering ten items to Buddha and Bodhisattva with a recital and singing of Buddhist hymns, to show respect and gratitude for their blessings. The ten items offered during the ceremony are incense, flower, light, fragrance, fruit, tea, food, gem, pearl and robe.
“By offering these auspicious yet essential things in life, it is in hope that they will shower us with a good life in return,” explains Isabel.
The bride’s face is covered by a traditional red headkerchief, lowered by her father and later lifted by the groom.
Embedded in these Buddhist rituals are elements of Confucian teachings, which places importance on filial piety and the event of a daughter leaving her parents. It starts with a traditional red headkerchief Isabel wears covering her face, lowered by her father and later lifted by Meng Tat. Traditionally, the red headkerchief was used to contain the bride’s modesty as during ancient times, unmarried women were not allowed to show their faces to strangers. A red umbrella also covers the bride as she leaves her house to the wedding car (or back then, a wooden sedan). This is to signify her family’s protection for her wellbeing as she goes to get married.
In the olden days, it was a custom for the mother of the bride to give ‘The Eight Precious” as the bride leaves home, which refers to the eight essential daily items she needs to bring along to her new home to be a good wife and mother. These eight items are a ruler (for many numbers mean many offspring), barrel (for an abundance of food), comb (for a happily ever after), umbrella (to protect and start a new generation), mirror (for a reflection of perfection), lamp (in hope of the birth of a baby boy), a pair of shoes (to live harmoniously together) and a pair of scissors (for the bride to enjoy a luxurious life, such as to be wealthy enough to cut silk). Each item’s symbolic meaning is poetic when recited in Chinese, with eight as an auspicious number.
Isabel says, “Now adapting with modern times, these items are common but the custom still carries the same hopes a mother has for her daughter. The modern practice is to give the items in the form of a gold charm bracelet.”
The Eight Precious in the form of a gold charm bracelet.
A custom that has been prevalent in Chinese weddings is the gatecrashing ceremony where the groom goes to pick up his bride. Bridesmaids often make it difficult for the groom and his groomsmen to do so, and today, it’s the most raucous part of the ceremony, breaking the ice between both sides.
At the gatecrashing ceremony, bridesmaids often make it difficult for the groom to reach his bride.
Bridesmaids will lay out difficult, hazing-type tasks for the groomsmen and would only let them pass if the groom gives a sizeable angpow (red packet with money). “During the olden days, the gatecrashing ceremony is a way to show that the bride’s family is reluctant to give the bride away,” says Sanny, the mother of the bride.
Finally, the tea ceremony is where two families formally meet and introduce the new member of the family to relatives of each respective side. Each family member is called a different name to clearly explain the relationship between each relative. The newlyweds will offer tea to all elder relatives, and in return will receive a gift (either an angpow or jewellery) from them as a blessing.
The tea ceremony.
Meanwhile, the younger relatives will offer tea to the newlyweds and receive angpow from the couple. The tea served at the ceremony also carries meaning, as it typically contains red dates, dried longan and lotus seed to signify wellness, success and abundance respectively.
Most Chinese families hold their customary beliefs and superstitions quite strongly. Hence, if you’re attending a Chinese wedding, be mindful not to wear red – as it’s the bridal colour – or too much black or white as these are mourning colours worn to a funeral. A wedding is two families becoming one, or perhaps two families welcoming new additions to their family – true double happiness.
By Mabel Ho
Images courtesy of Sheridan Photography.
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