|Jia Nialiang, a Chinese star, proposes to his girlfriend with a diamond ring. Image source.|
I just got engaged to a Chinese guy, and suddenly everything is really confusing. Turns out that in Chinese culture, the process of getting married is so incredibly different from what we do in western countries that it’s practically unrecognizable to me.
The biggest difference is that in China, you don’t get the marriage certificate on the same day you have the wedding. Let me repeat: getting legally married and having a wedding are TWO SEPARATE EVENTS in China. (Usually they get the marriage license a few months before the wedding.)
Now obviously, when I first heard this fact a few years ago and I was going through the process of rejecting purity culture, my first thought was, “But how do they know when they’re supposed to have sex????!!!” I theorized that purity culture’s response to this would be that it doesn’t matter what the government thinks, you’re married when you stand in front of God and your friends and family and make your vows, and after that you’re allowed to have sex. (But maybe the fact that you’re married in a legal sense could be a source of temptation! Oh no!) (My boyfriend- now fiancé- was like “wait, you mean we would be married but wouldn’t be able to live together yet?” He was not a fan. Good thing I’m not in purity culture any more so this isn’t an issue.) Kind of like how Mary and Joseph were betrothed and that meant they couldn’t have sex yet, but legally they would need a divorce to break up.
Anyway, what I really want to know is, at what point do Chinese people consider themselves married? When they’re legally married, or when they have the wedding? My fiancé, Hendrix, said this just depends on people’s own opinions. When do you personally consider yourself to be married?
(My answer is, I’ll consider us married after the US wedding. [We’re having 2 weddings: US and China.] Well, that’s my answer now. It might change if I get tired of explaining to Chinese people “well technically we’re married but we’re not like, MARRIED MARRIED. You know?” because no, they don’t know.)
I heard one of my colleagues talking about “my wife” and he wears a wedding ring- but it turns out they haven’t held the wedding yet. I asked my fiancé if this is normal- would you use the words “husband” and “wife” after you get the marriage license but before the wedding? He said, yeah that’s normal, people do that.
This is shocking to me. Because what does the English word “wedding” mean? Isn’t it the event where a set of people becomes married to each other? Like, before the wedding, you are not married. After the wedding, you are married. In my mind, this is so essential to the definition of what a wedding is that I really think “wedding” is not exactly the correct translation of the Chinese word “婚礼 [hūn lǐ]”.
“Wedding” is definitely the BEST translation of “婚礼 [hūn lǐ]”, but … “婚礼 [hūn lǐ]” is not a wedding. It’s more like, holding a big celebration of the fact that we are already married. (Or maybe they get the marriage license after the wedding. Apparently that’s fine too. Apparently nobody in charge at the “婚礼 [hūn lǐ]” is even checking if the marriage is legally valid.)
In the US, if people go to the courthouse and get married, and then later have a party with family and friends, we call it a “reception.” But “婚礼 [hūn lǐ]” should DEFINITELY NOT be translated as “reception.” If people have a reception, well, that’s pretty rare- there must have been some kind of problem that made them decide to get the marriage license without having a big event around it. Maybe they really needed to get the spouse onto their health insurance plan. Maybe they were having huge fights with their families about planning the wedding, and they decided to just run off and elope and then have a party that would be less pressure and less work than a wedding. In English, a “reception” is less of a big deal than a “wedding,” and it’s not the normal route that people go. In China, a “婚礼 [hūn lǐ]” IS the big deal- equal to a wedding in terms of how much of a big deal it is. It is not the less-of-a-big-deal option, and it is not an unusual situation. No, “reception” would be a terrible translation of “婚礼 [hūn lǐ]”.
So I will always translate it as “wedding.” But it’s not. But it is. Translation is hard. “Wedding” is the closest word we have in English, but it’s not the same thing.
And let’s talk about engagement.
So the whole “buy a diamond ring and set up a huge romantic surprise and propose to her” is a western tradition. Not native to Chinese culture. But nowadays, some Chinese young people do this, because of influence from western culture. (Hendrix totally did this. He is so romantic and nice.) But ya know, people say “Chinese weddings have become very westernized” but I bet it’s in the same way that China does stuff like Christmas and Halloween- they copy the outward appearance of a tradition, but they don’t actually know how the tradition is actually done or what the meaning is. Like the time I showed a picture of my family’s Christmas tree, and somebody pointed at the presents and asked me if they were empty boxes or they actually had gifts inside. Yeah. Because all the Christmas tree displays in China are the fake ones in malls.
(Oh my goodness, I JUST REALIZED this is exactly what “cultural appropriation” means. You copy some other culture’s tradition, but you actually have no idea how it works, and then if somebody from that culture comes along and says “let’s do [thing that is very obviously a part of the tradition you think you’re doing]” people are like “what are you talking about? We’re not doing that, that’s ridiculous.” This is what white people do to all the other cultures. Wow. No wonder people are always writing blog posts about why cultural appropriation is bad.)
Yeah, so my point is, I’m sure modern Chinese weddings have a lot of elements that look like things from western weddings, but they’re used in a completely different way. So I’m quite skeptical when I ask someone to tell me about what a Chinese wedding is like and they say “modern weddings are really westernized” as if that completely answers my question.
Right okay, so what was I talking about? Oh, right, we got engaged, I have a diamond ring. So then for Chinese New Year, we went to see Hendrix’s relatives. When we saw one group of relatives, they treated us as if our relationship was the same as before. No “oh my goodness you guys are engaged now! Congratulations! Welcome to the family!” We talked with them about plans for weddings- but just practical stuff. It’s as if they don’t see getting a diamond ring as a huge massive event that completely changes the relationship.
Then we went to see a different group of relatives, and they treated me like I was already part of the family. They told their children to call me “舅妈 [jiù mā]” , which I’m just going to translate as “aunt” without going into the whole thing about Chinese words for family members, ahem, translation is hard, we’ve covered this, it doesn’t mean the same thing as “aunt”, but when Hendrix and I are married, that’s what I’ll be to them (mom’s cousin’s wife, if you really want to know).
So I asked Hendrix, why did the first group act as though nothing has changed, and the second group acted like we were already married? He said the first group knows we haven’t gotten the marriage license yet, and in Chinese tradition, getting engaged isn’t really a thing [or rather, to the extent that it's a thing, it's traditionally more along the lines of two families arranging a marriage], so for them, nothing really has changed. (Like I said, young people sometimes do the whole diamond-ring-proposal thing, but these were Hendrix’s aunts and uncles- their generation didn’t do that.) And the second group, they probably think we’ve already gotten the marriage license. Because it’s pretty normal to start telling people you’re getting married after you’ve already gotten the marriage license. So they probably think we already did.
Some people would do a diamond-ring-proposal, and some couples would just talk about it and talk with their families and decide to get married and then they can just go whenever they want and get the marriage license, and then after that they plan the wedding. (Oh and the man’s family buys gifts for the woman’s family, and the man is expected to own a home first before he’s marriage material, but I won’t get into those traditions. I’ll just say that this puts way too much pressure on Chinese men, and as a feminist I don’t think it should be that way.)
One more fun story: so we also hung out with some of Hendrix’s friends from school, and talked about wedding plans. They asked when we’re planning to get the marriage license, and when we’re planning to have the wedding. And he told them! I was surprised- I had kind of assumed that people wouldn’t really be so public about the fact that the wedding and the legal start of the marriage were at different points in time. Like it’s a “dirty little secret” that we are actually married before the wedding.
I mean, that’s EXACTLY what I plan to do for the US wedding. I’m totally not going to publicize the fact that we’ll already be legally married in China. People would be like “so this isn’t even a real wedding? Why did we come all the way here?” I mean, if people ask for details about how marriage works in China, I’ll tell them, but other than that, no Americans need to know.
Why on earth did I assume Chinese people would see it the same way? No, for them this is totally normal. This is how it works. The wedding is NOT the day you get legally married- that’s not what a “婚礼 [hūn lǐ]” is. Everybody knows that.
I’m still really confused about how this all works. I’ll be figuring it out all through the next year. It’ll be an adventure.