The initial reason for my going to China was because I had been asked by my cousin to be her maid of honour. This was my first experience of a Chinese wedding and it proved to be anything but boring.
The traditional ritual to which the wedding tends is to collect the bride from her house and to carry her, not without due pomp and ceremony, to her new husband’s house and her new home. This sounds simple. The first problem was that my cousin lived in Shenzhen and the groom lived in Ningbo, the equivalent of going up and down between London and Aberdeen 3 times.
Instead, the journey was made from a hotel in Ningbo. This is where I come in. When the groom came to collect his bride he had to get past me first. My brother and I had spent days thinking of riddles and even mathematical puzzles before we realised we were totally barking up the wrong tree. The whole affair was merely a show, as if to say “I’m not going to just let you walk in and take my cousin away- you had better give me good reason to!” The questions themselves were really just playful banter- “who’s going to do the washing up?” and that kind of thing, after which if the answer was not enough in the way of appeasement then a red envelope containing money would be. Perhaps I did my job too well, barricading the door etc. but I delayed the groom and his saucy best man (who seemed to be doing all the talking) enough to make us behind schedule. As my mother kindly put it afterwards, I was meant to let them in after all. I was also under the impression that I was collecting the money (equiv. £20) for my cousin when actually I was meant to keep it. After getting past me, my uncle guarded the final door to my cousin’s room.
Once the groom got past even this intimidating hurdle, my uncle, being the male representative of this side of the family had to carry my cousin down to the antique Rolls Royce waiting outside. The theme here was that the bride’s feet must never touch the floor at any point during her journey (unless it’s carpeted in red) and likewise the scorching sun should be kept at bay. Armed with parasol in one hand and the bride’s shoes in the other I shielded the ruddy complexion of an uncle (who has high blood pressure) carrying a delighted cousin who despite having a light frame was not exactly wearing the lightest or most compact dress.
The open-top car had a red fur carpet laid down for the luxury of her feet and the car moved slowly enough for me to keep the parasol up for most of the way. We were followed by a procession of posh cars covered in pink pompoms (an elegant pairing) and serenaded by loud, traditional Chinese music.
At the other end, it was the groom’s turn to carry his bride to her new home (16th floor, thank goodness for the lift) and likewise the groom’s family’s turn to interrogate my cousin. This was done not half as well as I had done, (or perhaps better), for she was through in a jiffy. Upstairs the groom’s family had prepared a soup which appeared to be made from boiled dragon eye fruit and quails eggs. At no other point in life would I ever expect to eat such an unexpected combination. I don’t know if this is merely a Ningbo tradition or not and I’m not sure if anyone in the room knew what it meant. We ate it to be polite and it was rather sweet. There were also some shanghai xiaolongbao, again not for any particular reason. I do however know the meaning of the dates, peanuts, dragon eyes and watermelon seeds in four bowls sitting on top of the nuptial bed. The words in Chinese are: zao, shen, gui, zi and homophones for something that roughly translates as: give birth to a beloved child soon. My cousin offered tea to older members of both sides of the family. A fragrant rose tea, which I noticed they did not drink, but rather pretended to sip.
From here we went to the chosen grassy spot for the ceremony to take place. This part was in the Western tradition, except instead of a priest there was a guy with a microphone conducting the whole affair as if it were a musical, complete with cheesy music. It was certainly much more dramatic to watch. The host and his microphone followed us to the hotel and continued to conduct things in a voice that reminded me of the releasing of the lottery balls. He cracked jokes, he sang songs, he made up competitions for the guests to have a go at. It was a very lively wedding for sure, even if I was getting a headache from his singing.
The rest of the feast as far as I can tell, did not have as much signification as the previous nuts and dates had. The ingredients were expensive and the portions generous. I spotted my cousin’s favourite salmon sashimi, drunk crab (raw crab that has met an excessive end) the luxurious collagen-rich sea cucumber, lobster, king prawns, shanghai chicken, my favourite osmanthus flower flavoured jiu niang (fermented rice wine) with tang yuan (glutinous rice balls) and egg, with the unconventional addition of watermelon. So many platters, I cannot remember them all… There was simply no possibility of finishing it all…
The bride and groom could not indulge too long in their own feast, for it was their job to drink a toast to everyone in the room. After first drinking to their parents they had to make their way around at least 12 tables, over a hundred guests! The best man and I accompanied them around the room. He handed out cigarettes and I topped up the bride and groom’s glasses with red wine. A friend of the groom’s came up to me and asked me if it was really alcohol. Of course it was! I said in earnest, look, it says 11.5% on the bottle. He looked at me and then at the groom’s flushed face and said, the groom can’t take too much wine. He then sniffed the bottle, smiled and sat back down again. This put me in an awkward position. To continue to pour the wine that the groom was expected to drink, even if he shouldn’t, or to hell with tradition, and pride, and possibly offending guests. Thankfully the rounds were coming to an end anyway and we resumed our seats. It later transpired that the married couple had indeed diluted the wine down, without my noticing- I had been pouring 60% Coca cola!
The rest of the day was taking photographs in the French quarter of the city, in the shadow of an old Gothic church. We handed out sweets to strangers from the open top car, people smiled and pointed as we drove by and everyone was very congratulatory. It struck me that a wedding wasn’t strictly just business between two people, it was everyone’s business.
And what about my cousin? There she was up from the crack of dawn, ferried back and forth like a spinning rugby ball, patiently posing for every photograph and under a heavy dress the size of a house on a very hot day. For her, the wedding was a personal feat in more ways than one. She explained: at home you have your parents to think of you, at work, your role is very specialised (Adam Smith’s division of labour and all that), you’re just one part in the grand scheme of things- a wedding is the one thing you can organise entirely by yourself, like being the producer and director of your own film. It’s the kind of statement that sets the precedent for how you want to live your life in the future. And how you organise your wedding says a lot about the kind of life you want to live.
I have mixed feelings about my cousin’s views. Is a wedding really the only thing left to personal direction? As much as I would like to argue that you should direct your life the way you want in all things, being part of a family and even starting a family can mean personal ambition gets sidetracked. For example, the bride and groom can’t continue to work in Shenzhen and Ningbo forever respectively. Someone will have to compromise. This also means someone will have to live away from their single mothers. And of course my cousin is an only child, as is the groom.
This kind of case is increasingly common in China. Both bride and groom gave me very realistic and practical answers about their future. If the way they directed their wedding together is an accurate precedent for the future I believe they’ll be able to reach a solution that doesn’t involve yoyoing between cities and families.