TO have and hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health … till death do us part. The wedding vow is constant, but weddings in China have changed dramatically over the last 50 or so years.
A wedding in the 1950s was a simple affair, with overtones of politics. China’s first Marriage Law was enacted soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
At that time, a couple intending to marry need the approval of parents and authorization documents from their workplaces, signed by their respective bosses.
Zhu Yujun, 88, and his wife Chen Yongfen, 86, have been married for 60 years. They have lived through turbulent chapters of history: the war against Japan, the civil war, the founding of New China, the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) and China’s opening to the outside world.
“We first met in Shanghai in 1953 after we fled from our respective homes in Anhui and Jiangsu provinces during the wars,” Zhu recalled.
At that time, Chen was a statistician at the No. 1 Shanghai Steel Factory, while Zhu was a soldier on leave to visit his family.
They were introduced by Zhu’s elder brother and Chen’s sister, who were also a couple.
“She was a quiet, good-looking girl,” Zhu said of young Chen.
Their first blind date made a good impression on each of them.
Zhu returned to the army in Qingdao, Shandong Province, and the couple corresponded by mail for four years. Their letters weren’t exactly mushy romance. Rather, in keeping with the times, they talked about learning new things and contributing to the country’s development.
In 1957, Zhu retired from military service and returned to Shanghai. The pair subsequently married in a ceremony held at the Kaifu Hotel on Haining Road.
“We booked four tables, which cost about 70 yuan (US$10),” Chen recalled. “There was no tradition of people giving newlyweds red envelopes of cash as a wedding gift. We were given a vase.”
Zhu wanted to keep the wedding as simple as possible, but Chen insisted on at least having a formal wedding photo taken.
“At least we’ve got something to remember it by now,” she said.
1960s and 1970s
During the 1960s and 70s, when the country was undergoing political upheavals and trying to develop a centrally planned economy, weddings reflected the times.
A ceremony became the venue for newlyweds to pledge their allegiance to the reconstruction of China. Marriage certificates were printed with quotations from Chairman Mao: “The Communist Party leads our cause and couples should work to build the new society.”
Wedding music was typically the “East is Red,” and the wedding celebration party was plastered with political slogans.
During the 1980s, as the country began opening its doors to the outside world, the focus of weddings shifted from political sloganeering to the beginnings of consumerism.
Acquiring a television set, washing machine, fridge, radio and a good watch became prerequisites for a happy marriage. It was no easy task to acquire those amenities at the time. People had to turn to backdoor channels or personal connections. Anyone traveling overseas was duty-bound to bring back foreign brands.
Red silk robes were the ancient wedding attire, but the bride’s white gown and groom’s formal suit gained traction as foreign customs began making inroads in China. Couples were photographed in wedding clothes in classy studios, and red envelopes stuffed with up to 20 yuan became common gifts, even though the average monthly salary was only 50 yuan.
“We held a wedding banquet at the Xinzhuang Hotel, which was probably the best venue in town at the time,” said Yan Guifeng, 60, a retired teacher who married in 1983. “It cost us 50 yuan a table for the wedding banquet, and we had about 10 tables.”
A 1980s wedding was pretty straightforward. Guests arrived and promptly sat down to eat, while the newlyweds moved around the tables, offering cigarettes and receiving toasts and red envelopes.
In 1990, Purple House, China’s first wedding organizer, opened in Beijing. Since then, wedding event companies have mushroomed and weddings have become more complicated and costly.
A wedding party could be as grand as more than 100 tables, with the newlyweds paraded around like film celebrities. The red envelope became thicker and thicker.
In the new millennium, a common wedding requires a glamorous setting, an emcee, a professional photographer, a make-up artist and a cameraman. The banquet includes an opening ceremony, a red carpet, a short film about the couple’s love story and speeches from parents and friends.
“I wanted it to be simple, but my parents didn’t agree,” said Louise Liu, who married about eight years ago. Her wedding party featured 80 tables at a five-star hotel, and the bride changed costumes 10 times before the night was out.
“Everyone has a wedding like this, so we had to follow the rules,” Liu said.
Many young people are growing tired of marriage as show business. They are starting to forsake all the folderol and celebrate marriage with an overseas trip or a nightclub party of close friends instead.
“We didn’t want big,” Fiona Tan told Shanghai Daily of her summer wedding plans. “We wanted small and sweet.”
The human resources worker said she and her fiancé have decided on a wedding party in a pub.
“We have asked our friends to dress nicely but that’s it,” she said.
“We have told them we don’t want any cash or gifts. We want it to be a relaxed party, with wine and snacks and easy conversation.”