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China. “Empress for a day”

Ancient Chinese marriage customs have been maintained for thousands of years and are still practiced today. Absolute protagonist: the bride.

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According to Chinese legend, marriages are arranged in Heaven and merely completed on Earth. It is believed that the predestined couple is tied with a red string in Heaven long before the marriage occurs on Earth. Chinese marriage became custom during the Warring States period (402-221 B.C.).
The Chinese wedding involves a series of elaborate rituals prescribed by the Book of Rites (LiJi), the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial (YiLi) and the Bai Hu Tong, condensed into a series of rituals now known as “The Three Letters” ( Betrothal letter, Gift letter, Wedding letter) and “Six Rites”.

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The six traditional rites involved in a Chinese wedding are as follows: formal proposal;
matching birthdates (to predict the future of the couple-to-be); betrothal gifts to the bride and return gifts to the prospective groom; wedding gifts to the bride’s family; selection of an auspicious wedding date and wedding ceremony (San Shu Liu Li in Chinese).
Traditionally speaking, a wedding that incorporates all six rites is considered a “complete wedding”: da qiu.
Several preparations and rituals of the Chinese tradition were maintained over the centuries and they are evident even in modern and westernized weddings, in particular those traditions related to the bride who, on her wedding, is regarded as an “empress for a day”. As befits a true empress, particular importance is given to body care. Before the wedding ceremony, the bride showers with water infused with pomelo or pomegranate leaves, she will then put on a set of new clothing and shoes, while the fragrance of burned incense perfumes the place and clothing.

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Traditionally the hair combing ceremony (shutou) is performed the night before the wedding – or on the morning of the wedding day. The bride will sit in front of an open window with the moon visible or in front of a mirror. Some practice combing the hair three times and some four. The good-fortune woman will bless aloud as she combs the hair. The four blessings are:
First combing, continuous from beginning till end, “May you be together all your lives” (yi shu shu dao wei). Second combing, “May you have closeness and harmony in your marriage for a hundred years, till a ripe old age” (er shu bai nian hao he). Third combing, “May you fill your home with children and grandchildren” (san shu zi sun man tong). Fourth combing, “May you be healthy and enjoy a long and lucky life together” (si shu bai fa qi mei). The groom performs the same ritual, which symbolizes the attainment of adult status.

Chinese wedding dress

The wedding dresses are essential elements of the ceremony.
In modern Chinese weddings, the bride changes dresses at least 3 times during the wedding day: she wears the traditional Chinese red dress, a western style white wedding gown, and a long dress.
The traditional Chinese wedding dress in northern China is usually a one-piece frock named qipao, embroidered with elaborate gold and silver designs. Brides from southern China usually wear a two-piece dress named qun gua, kwa or cheongsam, also elaborately adorned with a golden phoenix and dragon. The combination of dragon and phoenix symbolizes the balance of male and female power, and became the symbol of good luck and harmony in marriage. The groom’s traditional black Zhongshan suit, or Mao suit, is also adorned with the dragon and phoenix motif. Grooms may also choose to wear a second suit and generally opt for a Western-style suit.

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However, as far as wedding dresses are concerned Chinese brides stick to tradition once again.
In fact the most popular wedding dress is the traditional Qing dynasty (1644-1911) inspired model. It is a loose, long sleeved dress, made of silk with the main color being red. It is decorated with elaborate images of a phoenix, peony, pairs of mandarin ducks, shuangxi character, embroidered by gold and silver thread; a short cloak, the xiapei, decorated with jewels, and red silk embroidered shoes complete the wedding dress.
Chinese brides also wear an elaborate head dress, the Phoenix coronet, Feng Guan in Chinese and the traditional red veil along with the Phoenix coronet – or in place of it. This is made of a laced silk square to cover the bride’s face. It is a symbol of purity, it is believed to protect the bride from evil spirits and helps her hide her shyness. The veil also recalls that, traditionally, the bride and groom would see each other’s face for the first time on their wedding night.

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The “empress for a day” has also the honour to be carried to her new home by her husband on a red stretcher covered with red drapes adorned with embroideries and decorated with propitious motifs, such as the dragon, the phoenix, the peony, symbol of wealth and honour, the Shuangxi character meaning double happiness, pairs of mandarin ducks, symbols of happiness and marital fidelity.
In most modern ceremonies the red stretcher is replaced by a car decorated with fresh flowers such as lilies and red roses. In China, the colour red is considered the most auspicious colour, most people think it brings good luck, love, happiness prosperity to newlyweds. This is the reason why it plays a dominant role, besides dresses, in all the details of wedding ceremonies.

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