Wherever you go, weddings are chock-full of traditions. Of course, some of these customs have evolved along with the changing times, but they mostly remain as they were as a way for us to connect with our roots and honor our heritage.
Whether you feel a sense of duty or are simply fascinated about the world of traditional wedding customs, it’s always good to familiarise yourself with some of the most common Chinese, Malay, and Indian wedding traditions in our beautifully diverse cultural melting pot.
Many of the customs related to Chinese marriage were formulated during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), including the exchanging of betrothal gifts and dowry. These traditional customs were initially guided by the Book of Rites, Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial, and the Bai Hu Tong – a Confucian text said to be on the true meanings of the classics.
These rituals were then further condensed into the Three Letters and Six Etiquettes (San Shu Liu Li), and only a wedding that has incorporated these six rites was considered a completed one: The Proposal (Nà Cii), Matching of Names and Birth Dates (Hé Duì Ba Zì), Presenting Betrothal Gifts (Nà Jí), Presenting Wedding Gifts (Nà Zheng), Selection of an Auspicious Wedding Date (Qing Qi), and the Wedding Ceremony (Qin Yíng).
1. The Betrothal
The betrothal ceremony for Chinese weddings consists of two parts – the gifting of betrothal gifts and dowry money (Pin Jin) from the groom to the bride’s family, also known as Guo Da Li, and the returning of a portion of the gifts from the bride’s family to the groom’s family, which is also known as Hui Li.
One of the hallmarks of Chinese weddings, the value of the betrothal gifts traditionally determined the financial stability of the groom. Meant to thank and show respect to the bride’s parents for raising the bride, it also represents the groom’s family’s desire to forge good relations with their future in-laws. By accepting the gifts, the bride’s parents formally pledge her to the groom.
Today, the Guo Da Li is usually held 2 - 3 weeks prior to the wedding, and all of the food items and gifts are prepared in pairs and carried over in wedding baskets by the groom. Typically, a matchmaker or senior relative would accompany him.
Common items gifted across all dialects include alcohol, Dragon and Phoenix Candles (Long Feng Zhu), 4 Treasure Jin Guo, Canned Pig Trotters, and more, which are meant to represent blessings and well wishes, and every dialect will have their own specific items to prepare as well.
Among the gifts that Cantonese and Hakka grooms must typically bring include Dragon and Pheonix Cakes that represent the groom’s gratitude towards the bride’s parents for bringing her up, a whole roasted pig for prosperity, and a pair of old coconuts to signify an abundance of offsprings.
For Hokkien grooms, mee sua represents longevity, rice and sesame biscuits (Mi Lao Ma Lao) symbolize luck, wealth, and prosperity, and a type of traditional wedding pastries (Xi Bing), the peanut sugee, represents the groom’s gratitude to the bride’s parents.
Uniquely for the Teochews in Singapore, a Teochew Wax will be placed on the tray together with the dowry money and Si Dian Jin, which symbolizes the groom’s parents’ love for the bride. As for the Hainanese, Hainan Ginteh and Ta Yun Pian are given to signify an abundance of wealth.
Upon receiving the betrothal gifts from the groom, the bride’s family will then reciprocate the generosity by returning a portion of the gifts. This is to show that the groom’s family is overly generous and that the bride’s family is not greedy, and most importantly, that the two families will share their good fortune.
Betrothal jewelry is also given during the Guo Da Li as a form of blessing and acceptance for the bride, and the gift will depend on the bride’s dialect group – a pair of gold Dragon-Pheonix bangles for Cantonese and Hakkas, a pair of gold bangles or bracelets for Hainanese and Hokkiens, and Si Dian Jin, a 4-piece-set of jewelry made up of a necklace, ring, bangle, and a pair of earrings for the Teochews.
Representing a promise made by the mother-in-law to always provide a roof over her new “daughter’s” head, today, some Singaporeans integrate the Si Dian Jin into their wedding practices regardless of their dialects because there are various motifs available with different meanings to choose from, making them perfect heirloom pieces to pass down for generations to come. Instead of the traditional gold, couples are also now open to other types of jewelry such as jade and diamonds.
The Dowry (Jia Zhuang) is also given during the betrothal, and are gifts bestowed by the bride’s family to the groom’s family for the couple to use in the future. These were daily necessities vital for a new home in the past, and today, some of these items such as the Baby Prosperity Set are replaced with a miniature display version because they are no longer of use in our everyday lives.
2. Matrimonial Bed Setting
An important practice that is done to bless the bride and groom with good health, many offsprings, and harmony, the Matrimonial Bed Setting (An Chuang) is held a few days before the wedding, on an auspicious date.
There is a series of steps involved in the ritual, including having a “Good Fortune” lady make the bed, change the bedsheets, and recite the following blessings:
(May you be blessed with a blissful and harmonious marriage for a century)
(May you be blessed with plenty of children quickly)
(May you grow old together)
(May you always be filled with love for one another)
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