For quite some time we’ve been meaning to write a piece on what happens on a typical Shanghai wedding day. Having photographed weddings in China for the last few years made us realize one thing – there are so many variations of wedding customs and traditions in different parts of the country, that it’s hard or even superficial to give one definition of what Chinese wedding is. Since we’re most familiar with weddings in Shanghai and many asked how they look like, let’s try to have a go at them.
BEFORE THE WEDDING
Getting married is actually a hard work.
After getting engaged it’s time to set a wedding date. It is not uncommon for the couple to visit a fortune-teller just for this. There’s lots of symbolism and superstitions going on in China, and picking a “lucky day” is often very important. At the same time you have to be pragmatic therefore most weddings happen in spring and autumn when the Shanghai weather is easy on you.
Now that the date is all set, it’s time to find and get in touch with the wedding planner. They make the daunting process of organizing everything look easy. The vast majority of Chinese weddings we shoot in Shanghai are coordinated by the wedding planners so it’s a preferred choice of doing things here.
Typically a few months before the big day the couple hires a photographer to shoot pre-wedding pictures for them. In the past it usually used to be done in a photo studio with the same props and themed backdrops as the last 500 couples before them (it’s a good business model for the studio, have to give it to them). The trends are changing though and young Chinese are less interested in cookie cutter photography. More and more couples nowadays tend to look for originality and are more aware of what they want.
Lastly, some time before the wedding ceremony day, the lucky couple has to pay a visit to Shanghai Marriage Registration Center of Civil Affairs Bureau. They bring their ID’s, fill in the forms, pay whopping 5RMB (that’s less than a dollar), and pick up the marriage certificate on the spot. Boom. They are legally married. Cheap and easy as it looks like you must remember that in many cases, before they can step in the marriage office, it is expected of the groom to a) buy a house b) send “Grand Gifts” (dowry) to bride’s family. There is a lot of pressure.
THE BIG DAY: MORNING HUSTLE
It is likely a 7am wake up call. The groom and bride stay in their respective apartments or different hotels. The rooms get decorated with red banners and “double happiness” ornaments. All of it for good luck and prosperity. In the meantime, the bride gets her hair & make-up done and puts on the first wedding dress. She is ready.
HERE COMES THE GROOM: DOOR GAMES
It’s 9am by now and you can hear the engine of the rented Ferrari outside the window. It’s almost as loud as the firecrackers. The groom and his best men have arrived and their task is to fetch the bride. All doors are blocked and, as a test of love & devotion, the groom has to face a series of challenges (quizzes, singing, push-ups, etc.) before each door is opened. On top of that he needs to buy his way in with red envelopes with so-called lucky money (hong bao).
The newlyweds are now united and proceed with the tea ceremony. The bride and groom will serve the tea to the parents and in return receive the red envelope with money. The couple is also served a sweet soup made of dates, peanuts, longans, and lotus seeds – a symbolic blessing to have healthy offspring.
The bride is carried to the car and while inside she has her shoes changed to formal ones by her mother. This represents sending good luck to her family. Then the family moves to the groom’s place big style in the caravan of limos or sports cars. Once everybody arrives, the tea ceremony is repeated.
SHANGHAI WEDDING BANQUET
The reception usually takes place in the hotel ballroom, sometimes in the restaurant. The average size is 15-30 round tables which can accommodate 150-300 guests. It can get much bigger though – on a few occassions we shot a wedding with 1000 guests. With the average cost of 5000 to 10000rmb per table it’s easy to notice that the price can be pretty steep. Guests customarily bring red envelopes as gifts (500-1000rmb), which are hardly enough to cover all the expenses.
Chinese people attach a lot of importance to numbers, “8” being the luckiest one. Consequently many wedding banquets in Shanghai will commence at 18:18. Most receptions are divided into 3 parts run by a wedding MC: first dedicated to the newlyweds, second to the parents, and the final is about games & activities (contests, bouquet toss, etc). During each phase the couple and the family will make speeches and toasts. And for each one the bride will change a new dress – from western wedding gown to Chinese qipao, to evening dress. Including morning attires, there are often 4-5 dresses prepared for the day. Crazy? Well, the boys have their cars :)
Traditionally there is no dancing or parting (by western standards). During the breaks between the three parts of banquet, guests feast on lobsters, fish, pig roast, shark fin soup, and the like. All in all about 10 courses. For the final stage of the Shanghai wedding the newlyweds toast with each table drinking wine or local spirits – baijiu. Or at least they pretend to. Imagine having to drink 30 glasses of liquor within half an hour? Those brave grooms who attempt don’t end up well…
Most wedding banquets in Shanghai finish around 9pm. Some of the “modern” couples move the party to Shanghai clubs. The majority goes home.
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This is by no means a complete guide to Shanghai weddings. But hopefully it will answer some questions about local customs and traditions. Do you know of any other interesting customs or traditions? Write your comment below!