Mirror of Time: Chinese Weddings Through the Decades
But it is not just the custom of bride prices that has drastically changed over the past decades. In pace with a rapidly-changing China, the whole process of getting married and wedding traditions have undergone enormous changes.
Liu Tong (@丹东刘彤), deputy director of a Liaoning local TV channel, writes on Weibo: “In my parent’s generation, picking up the bride by bicycle was the equivalent of what the BMW car norm is now. After the establishment of a new China, the era of changes is reflected in the wedding transformations.”
Liu writes about what has characterized Chinese weddings through the ages, using a widespread Chinese phrase: “In the 1950s it was about having a bed, in the 1960s it was just about a bag of sweets, in the 1970s it was the Little Red Book, in the 1980s it was about having a radio, in the 1990s there was the extravagance of top-class hotels, and in the 2000s the wedding reception is a display of individuality”.*
Others on Weibo call China’s changing wedding traditions a “mirror of their time.”
Since China’s 1940s, the custom of wearing a white dress and making wedding photos had come into fashion (see image below).
But with the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China, wedding customs changed enormously within a relatively short time frame.
1950s: Plain and simple
In the 1950s, getting married was not much of a fuss, as China’s political situation and social revolution were deeply influencing people’s lives.
Getting a marriage certificate was enough to consider yourself married.
An elder female resident from Hubei province named Mrs. Zhang tells Chinese media channel Cnchu.com that the weddings in those days were nothing comparable to what they are today: the marriage certificate was not much more than a paper with an official seal on it.
People did not buy special clothes or gifts for the occasion: a simple gathering with some friends, neighbors, or family was enough.
Mrs. Zhang says: “What left the deepest impression on me, was that I lived in a dorm for singles and had to go and collect my luggage and take it to my husband’s house to start my new life.”
“Although the wedding was very simple,” she says: “It was in fact very meaningful. We had the wedding certificate framed.”
1960s: Politics First
The 1960s wedding were similar to those in the 1950s in that they were quite simple, and that they would be celebrated with “just a few sweets and a plate of peanuts” (Liu 2013, 27). But with the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the impact of the Communist Revolution on people’s everyday lives was pushed a step further.There would be no flowers, no gown. Couples would get married by bowing their heads to a portrait of Mao Zedong at the local government office, holding the Little Red Book in their hands.
The idea of free marriage, and marrying for love rather than material possessions, was something that had become the norm in most areas throughout China in the 1960s (Yu 1993, 110); the Marriage Law of the PRC was already introduced in 1950, and one its main principles was the free choice of partners.
For a wedding, friends would gather for some peanuts, sweets, and tea, but there would not be big celebrations: people had to get up for work early the next morning, like any other day.
Journalist Li Zhensheng, who got married in 1968 at his work in the Heilongjiang Daily Newspaper’s office (see photo below), writes on iFeng Blog that it already cost one month’s wages (56 RMB/±8$)* to buy some candies, tea, and cigarettes. *(Please note that this is the present conversion rate and does not reflect the worth of 56 RMB in 1968).
Li tells that together with their co-workers, the married couple sang some revolutionary songs. Their friends gave them some signs to hang on their necks as a sort of joke, saying: “The bride/groom taking the socialist way.”
1970s: The Three Most-Wanted Items
In the late 1970s, after the ending of the Cultural Revolution, getting married became more connected to material possessions and a dowry. The idea of having “the three essential items” (三大件) came into fashion upon getting married. These items were a watch, a bicycle, and a sewing machine. A radio was later also included (三转一响).
Although these items were generally the most desirable ones in the 1950s-1970s period, there were unattainable to many, as were things like leather shoes.
Household furniture was also becoming more important; newlyweds were expected to own at least one complete set of furniture (including a table, 4 chairs, a bed, a writing desk, a couch, a coffee table, besides cabinet, etc.)
Nevertheless, the wedding ceremony itself would still be relatively simple: there was a marriage certificate, the couple would face the portrait of Mao Zedong and have one witness, which would be enough.
One Weibo user from Beijing (@婷是我六六也是我) shared the wedding picture and certificate of her parents, who got married in this era (images below).
According to wedding service company Jieqinwang, the price of a wedding ceremony in those days would be around 700 RMB (±100 US$ presently), with around a 420 RMB (60 US$) for the ‘three main items’ (watch, bicycle, and sewing machine) (this China.org article points out people would need coupons to purchase these items).
The rest of the money could be used for clothes (180 RMB/26$), and a wedding meal for 10 people (100 RMB/14$).
Not all couples would be able to purchase new clothes, but if they could, they would. For many people, their wedding photo would be their first real portrait photo. Besides the photo in the Communist outfit, they would also have a photo in normal clothes.
1980s: Real Dress, Fake Flowers
After the end of the Mao era and the introduction of economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping, the 1980s showed some drastic changes to the previous decennia in wedding customs.
The general necessities for a marriage were now household electric appliances. Instead of items such as a watch, sewing machine, and bicycle, the new “three main items” were a television set, washing machine, and refrigerator – although not many people could actually afford them.
The custom of taking one’s vows in front of the Mao Zedong portrait was slowly disappearing, and weddings were becoming more formal again.
Those who could afford it would wear a Western-style dress and carry plastic flowers. Weddings would increasingly often take place outside the home, in hotels or restaurants.
The custom of picking up the bride with a group was also becoming more prevalent – she could sit on the back of the bike.
According to Jieqinwang and Phoenix News, the cost for a somewhat extravagant wedding in the 1980s would be around 3300 RMB (±480$), including the price for the “three items”, clothing, wedding pictures, and a wedding banquet for 10 people.
1990s: Higher Expectations
In the 1990s, the costs and expectations of wedding ceremonies became much higher than in the previous decades. The custom of making pre-wedding pictures came into fashion and the so-called bride prices or dowries came to play a more important role.
The day itself was also a much bigger event than in previous era’s. On the day of the wedding, the groom’s side would often rent a car to pick up the bride, and the wedding would often be celebrated in a hotel or restaurant.
Owning a house also became to play a more important role, although this was financially impossible for many.
One Chinese man born in 1967 shares the story of his marriage day in 1995 with China.com, saying: “Getting married in the 1990s had become a lot more complicated and needed a lot of preparation, selecting the day, settling the dowry, seeing the new house (..), everything had to be prepared.”
The average price of a wedding had become about ten times higher in the 1990s than in the 1980s. People would spend about 500 RMB (±75$) on taking wedding photos in a studio.
Other costs included the buying of the ‘must-have’ electrical appliances of the 1990s (motorbike, air-conditioning, video recorder), buying a wedding dress and the suit, renting a wedding car, and paying for a lavish wedding banquet for about 20 people.
Excluding the price of buying or renovating the house, this would still make the wedding price of around 33000 RMB (±4800-5000$, estimated by Jieqinwang).
2000s: Individuality & Extravagance
Since the 2000s, the organization and payment of weddings have become an increasingly heavy burden, especially for the groom’s family.
Although the custom of bride prices varies across China, it has come to play a more significant role in China’s countryside, where bride prices reached a new height due to the shortage of women of marriage age.
Whereas the ‘three main items’ of the 1970s-1980s period were a sewing machine, bike, and a watch – later substituted with a washing machine, TV set, and fridge, and a motorbike, video recorder and air-conditioning – the magic words of the 2000s became ‘house’ and ‘car’ (买房买车); meaning that for a man to be considered eligible for marriage, they are usually expected to buy a house and own a car.
Chinese weddings after 2000 are especially marked by their combination of traditional and western influences. Around 2003, a survey by People’s Daily revealed that an average newly married couple in Tianjin would spend around 191,000 RMB (±27,800$) on their wedding. This money would go towards the banquet, housing and furniture, wedding pictures, etc. (Liu 2013, 27).
The pre-wedding photo sessions have now become an integral part of the Chinese wedding customs. As Cat Hanson wrote here previously, the perfect wedding shoot has actually become a top priority in Chinese wedding arrangements. Many couples even travel abroad for their pre-wedding photo session.
On Chinese social media, wedding photography companies offer all-inclusive packages that promise couples 10 different outfits (including make-up and hair) in 10 different scenic scenes, including hotel stays and free drinks. The photo tradition has become a honeymoon of its own.
Those wedding photos now also show that besides all the lavishness, people also find it increasingly more important to stress individuality: from traditional clothes to western style dresses to unique creations, the majority of China’s early 21st century couples like to keep their weddings classy, original, and expensive.
* loose translation of the sentence: “五十年代一张床，六十年代一包糖，七十年代红宝书，八十年代三转一响，九十年代星级宾馆讲排场，二十一世纪特色婚宴个性张扬.”
Sources & Further Reading
Chen Mingyuan 陈明远. 2010. “20世纪中国的结婚照 [20th Century Chinese Wedding Photos]” (In Chinese). Sina Blog, May 3 http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4bbb74a50100g4u7.html [20.2.17].
Cnchu.com. 2015. “50年代一张床 荆州社区居民话说那个年代的婚礼 [In the 1950s a Bed Was Enough – Jingzhou Community Residents Talk About the Weddings of The Time].” Cnchu, Oct 24 http://www.cnchu.com/viewnews-212816.html [19.2.17].
iFeng/Phoenix News. 2016. “父辈们的婚礼：自行车接新娘相当于现在宝马.” Phoenix News, Dec 16 http://share.iclient.ifeng.com/news/sharenews.f?aid=116557303&channelId=default&mid=&vt=5&srctag=cpz_sh_imtj_a [19.2.17].
Jieqingwang. “婚礼中婚纱最耀眼 盘点中国婚纱的变化” http://www.jieqinwang.com/article/detail/id/992
iFeng/Phoenix News. Special “Getting Married in the 1980s.” http://js.ifeng.com/special/80nd-hunli/#p1 [21.2.17].
Liu, Fengshu. 2013 (2011). “Social Transformation in China.” In Fengshu Liu, Urban Youth in China: Modernity, the Internet and the Self, 15-35. New York: Routledge.
Liu Qingmei 刘清梅. 2016. “六十年婚礼进行曲 [Sixty Years Wedding March].” Sina Blog, June 8 http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4e74289e0102x7y5.html [19.2.17].
Li Zhensheng 李振盛. 2010. “我在1968年的“文革”婚礼 [My ‘Revolutionary’ Wedding in 1968].” iFeng Blog, Dec 24 http://blog.ifeng.com/article/9306039.html [21.2.17].
Steinfeld, Jemimah. 2015. Little Emperors and Material Girls: Youth and Sex in Modern China. I.B.Tauris.
TJFER. 2016 “老照片：90年代农村结婚场面 [Old Photos: 1990s Weddings in the Countryside].” TJFER, 23 Nov http://www.tjfer.com/detail/g6356076561996906754/ [21.2.17].
Vision Times. 2011. “清末到80年代 百年婚纱照的演变 [From the End of the Qing to 1980s: The Development of 100 Years Marriage Pictures].” Vision Times, Dec 20 http://m.secretchina.com/news/gb/2011/12/20/433617.html.%E6%B8%85%E6%9C%AB%E5%88%B080%E5%B9%B4%E4%BB%A3%E3%80%80%E7%99%BE%E5%B9%B4%E5%A9%9A%E7%BA%B1%E7%85%A7%E7%9A%84%E6%BC%94%E5%8F%98(%E7%BB%84%E5%9B%BE).html [20.2.17].
Wanhuajing. “父辈们的婚礼：自行车接新娘相当于现在宝马 [The Weddings of Our Parents: Today’s BMW is the Bike that Picked Up the Bride Then]” Wanhuajing, Dec 29 http://m.wanhuajing.com/d673875 [19.2.17].
Women of China. 2009. “Changes in Chinese Weddings Over 60 Years.” Women of China, http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/features/family/10/2641-1.htm [19.2.17].
Women of China. 2011. “‘Barometers’ of Fashion: Chinese Women’s Hairstyles Change; Reflect Altering Trends Over Past 60 Years.” Women of China, 14 Dec http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/special/13/6006-1.htm [21.2.17].
YCWB. 2015. “婚礼中婚纱最耀眼 盘点中国婚纱的变化 [The Wedding Dress Is The Most Dazzling Part – Inventory of Chinese Wedding Changes].” YCWB, July 27 http://life.ycwb.com/2015-07/29/content_20473410.htm [19.2.17].
Yu, George T. 1993. China in Transition: Economic, Political, and Social Developments. Lanham: University Press of America.
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