Chinese weddings

Singapore Infopedia

by Yeo, Teresa Rebecca


Chinese wedding customs and tradition generally vary according to dialect group. Although modernisation has resulted in the simplification of traditional marriage rituals, a Chinese wedding is often not considered complete until the couple have performed the customary rites.

The betrothal
The traditional ritual of matching the horoscopes of the couple before a marriage to ensure compatibility, along with the custom of using professional matchmakers to plan the wedding arrangements, is rarely practised today.1 However, the custom of presenting betrothal gifts to the bride’s family as a token of appreciation – in a ceremony known as guo da li – is still being observed by couples.2

According to Chinese custom, the presentation of betrothal gifts should be carried out on an auspicious day – usually chosen from the tongshu (Chinese almanac) – one to two weeks prior to the date of the wedding ceremony. During guo da li, the groom’s family presents the bride’s family with food items and gifts that symbolise good luck and prosperity.3 In addition, the bride’s family receives the pin jin, or bride price, in a hongbao (red packet) as an acknowledgement of the important role played by the bride’s parents in her upbringing.4 Some families ensure that the amount given contains auspicious numbers. The Cantonese like the number nine, as it sounds like the word for “longevity” in Cantonese and Mandarin.5 The bride’s family usually just accepts a token sum and returns the rest to the groom to avoid the impression that they are selling their daughter.6

The types of gift presented to the bride’s family differ among the dialect groups, but the number of items usually add up to six, eight, 10 or 12.In Teochew weddings, typical gifts include pieces of peanut-sesame candy wrapped in red paper to signify qian zi wan sun (“a thousand children, ten thousand grandchildren”), with the peanuts symbolising the children and the sesame seeds, the grandchildren.8 For the Cantonese, the bride’s family may be given seafood such as sea cucumber, cuttlefish, abalone, scallop, shark’s fin, dried shrimp, oyster, mushroom and fish maw.Items common across the dialect groups include two pairs of red dragon and phoenix candles, with the dragon representing the groom and the phoenix representing the bride.10

The groom’s parents may also give the bride jewellery: a pair of dragon and phoenix bangles for the Cantonese, and four items of gold jewellery (si dian jin) –a pair of earrings, a ring, bangle and necklace – for the Teochews.11

Eve of the wedding
On the night before the wedding, some families pray to the God of Heaven (Tian Gong) as well as their ancestors to seek protection and blessings.12

Some couples also carry out the shang tou, or “hair-combing ritual”, which is held separately during an auspicious hour at the respective homes of the bride and the groom to symbolise their attainment of maturity.13 During the ritual, auspicious words are uttered and blessings are pronounced with each brush of the hair. Although this has traditionally been a Cantonese custom, other dialect groups in Singapore also practise it.14 The ceremony may be performed by the parents of the bride and groom, or an elderly or respected female relative, one who is happily married and has many children and grandchildren.15 The Chinese believe that the ritual ensures an everlasting marriage and many children for the couple.16 After the ceremony, the bride and groom eat a bowl of glutinous rice balls, which symbolise togetherness in their relationship.17

Wedding day
On the day of the wedding, the groom makes his way to the bride’s home, accompanied by a groomsmen or an entourage of them, to “collect” his bride by a specific auspicious time. Upon arriving, he hands a red packet containing some money to the person who welcomes his arrival and opens the bridal car door; this person is usually the bride’s younger brother or, in the absence of one, a younger male relative. At the door to the bride’s home, the groom and his buddies are greeted by a boisterous group of the bride’s female relatives and friends called jie mei, or “sisters”, who will not let him in unless he accedes to their demands. Usually, they ask him for a hongbao containing a specific sum of money containing nines in the figure. A very large sum is asked for initially, and the male entourage will negotiate and haggle with the “sisters” over the amount. To add to the fun and gaiety of the occasion, the groom is also made to publicly declare his love in novel ways before the “sisters” allow him entry into the house.18

The bride is fully dressed in her wedding finery when the groom arrives. It is a tradition that the father places the bridal veil on his daughter’s head to mark her coming of age. After “collecting” the bride, the couple and their entourage proceed to the groom’s family home. The bride will be accompanied by a bridesmaid or a number of bridesmaids as well as a few other female friends. An older female relative or family friend may accompany the party to represent the bride’s family.19

At the groom’s home, the couple performs the “tea ceremony”, a ritual that officially recognises the couple as husband and wife after they’ve performed the “three bows”. The first bow is directed to heaven and earth, the second to parents and the third to each other. The tea served is usually brewed with lotus seeds, two red dates and two longans to symbolise a sweet and fertile marriage.20

Tea is first offered to the gods and then to the groom’s ancestors to obtain blessings. Next, tea is served to the groom’s parents followed by senior members of the family and other relatives. Those who are served tea are usually seated, while the couple kneels and offers the tea cup using both hands. Some couples, however, choose to bow instead of kneeling when serving the tea. A female relative assists by replenishing the cups of tea which are usually placed on a red tray. Everyone who is served gives the couple a hongbao or jewellery item. The groom’s younger siblings may also offer tea to the couple.21

After the tea ceremony at the groom’s house, the couple returns to the bride’s house. In the old days, the return visit is made after three days, by which time the marriage would have been consummated and the groom presents a whole roast pig to his in-laws to symbolise the bride’s purity.22 The pig is cut up and the meat distributed to the bride’s relatives, and the head and tail are then returned to the groom to signify “a good beginning and end” to the marriage.23 If the bride is found not to be a virgin, the ear or tail of the pig would be cut off. Today, the bride returns home on the wedding day itself, and the tea ceremony is then performed on her parents and relatives.24

The tea ceremony, therefore, provides the couple with the opportunity to show their gratitude and respect to their parents and, in return, for parents to shower good wishes upon the couple.25

The wedding day usually culminates in a dinner reception for relatives and friends.26 As many couples prefer to hold the banquet in a hotel function room, these venues tend to be fully booked on auspicious dates such as 8 August 2008, 9 September 2009 and 10 October 2010 despite the fact that receptions cost more on these dates. Another popular date was 14 February 1995 as it was Valentine’s Day and also the 15th day of Chinese New Year.27

The wedding reception provides not only the occasion for friends and relatives to meet the bride and groom, but also an opportunity for the couple to express their gratitude.28 During the course of the dinner, the couple visit each dinner table to show appreciation to their guests. Each toast is personalised as the groom makes it a point to refill the glass of every guest at the table. If there are too many tables, the practice is for the groom and bride and their parents to propose a toast from the stage. As the last course is served, the couple and their parents will form a line at the exit to personally express their thanks and bid farewell to departing guests.29

Teresa Rebecca Yeo

1. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 1989), 99. (Call no. RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS]); “Negotiating Over Dates and Hongbao,” Straits Times, 17 October 1989, 19. (From NewspaperSG)

2. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 99; “The Practices,” Straits Times, 27 July 2008, 47; Janice Tai, “Retro Nuptials,” Straits Times, 27 July 2008, 47. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Tham Seong Chee, Religion & Modernization: A Study of Changing Rituals Among Singapore's Chinese, Malays & Indians (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1985), 56 (Call no. RSING 301.295957 THA); Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 103, 105; “The Practices.”
4. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 99; “Negotiating Over Dates and Hongbao.”
5. Ho Ka Wei and Tan Hui Yee, “9.9.99 Means Good Luck for 150 Couples,” Straits Times, 16 August 1999, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “The Practices,”; Leong Huan Chie, “Understanding Marriage: Chinese Weddings in Singapore,” (master’s thesis, National University of Singapore, 2011), 73,
7. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 101.
8. “Guo Da Li, 过大礼 (Teochew & Hokkien),” Singapore Brides, accessed 13 November 2016,; Khng Eu Meng, “Will the Cookie Craft Crumble?” Straits Times, 3 June 1989, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Leong, “Understanding Marriage: Chinese Weddings in Singapore,” 66; “Guo Da Li, 过大礼 (Cantonese & Hakka),” Singapore Brides, accessed 13 November 2016,;
10. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 103; Singapore Brides, “Guo Da Li”; “Enter the Dragon,” Straits Times, 6 March 1991, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Leong, “Understanding Marriage: Chinese Weddings in Singapore,” 66; Koh Joh Ting, “Presents & Their Past,” Straits Times, 10 February 2006, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Tham, Religion & Modernization, 56.
13. Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore (London: HMSO, 1957), 104. (Call no. RSING 301.42 FRE)
14. Lee San Chouy, “The Rites That Make a Marriage,” Straits Times, 5 February 1988, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Tham, Religion & Modernization, 57; Audrie Soh, “Chinese Hair-Combing Ceremony How-To’s,” accessed 13 November 2016,
16. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 105.
17. Soh, “Chinese Hair-Combing Ceremony How-To’s.”
18. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 105, 107; Leong, “Understanding Marriage: Chinese Weddings in Singapore,” 76.
19. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 107.
20. “That Thing You Do: Tea Ceremony,” Her World Brides (June–August 2010): 102. (Call no. RSING 395.22 HWB-[CUS])
21. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 109, 111; “Negotiating Over Dates and Hongbao.”
22. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 111, 113; “Negotiating Over Dates and Hongbao.”
23. Leong, “Understanding Marriage: Chinese Weddings in Singapore,” 67.
24. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 111, 113; “Negotiating Over Dates and Hongbao.”
25. Tham, Religion & Modernization, 58; Leong, “Understanding Marriage: Chinese Weddings in Singapore,” 77.
26. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 113.
27. Joceyln Lee and Huang Huifen, “Perfect 10.10.10 Wedding,” Straits Times, 19 September 2010, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Tham, Religion & Modernization, 58.
29. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 115; “Negotiating Over Dates and Hongbao.”

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



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