Getting married in China

A single generation ago, arranged marriages were common.  These arranged marriages were nothing but financial transactions between the groom and his in-laws.  Today, young Chinese people are often very keen to please the whims of traditional parents.  Not all Chinese girls would accept a Western boyfriend or husband.  And certainly not all Chinese parents would ever tolerate such a match.

I was lucky.  My wife and I got married after six months of dating and her parents wholly supported (and remain supportive of) our decision.  In this article I write about the steps we took in order to get married.

Step 1: Dating

I live in a rural and conservative part of China.  Here, the Western concept of dating does not exist.  There is a clear friendship phase followed by a clear engagement phase, often with nothing in the middle.  For some girls, admitting to being a girlfriend is an earnest declaration of intent to marry.  Some Chinese girls may look interested in having a boyfriend.  But really they enjoy the kudos of hanging out with a foreigner while they play the field.

Step 2: Meeting the parents

It is a big step when your Chinese girlfriend tells her parents about you.  This means that she is seriously considering marriage.  If your heart isn’t it in at this stage, you really shouldn’t be wasting her time.  Engagement does not really exist in China.  Instead, you should accompany your girlfriend back to her hometown for a semi-official meeting with the parents.  Typically, Chinese men come bearing expensive gifts of alcohol and cigarettes to prove that they will be able to provide for their wives.

Step 3: Certificate of marriageability

The first document you need as a Westerner in order to marry a Chinese national is called the Affirmation of marriage status (which has secular and religious versions).  It proves that you are single and thus legally allowed to marry.  You will need to provide your home addresses as well as your wife’s Hukou and work addresses.  This step is by appointment only at a UK consulate, which in my case was the Kerry Centre in Beijing.  I handed over some paperwork, swore an oath and signed my signature.  It felt as mundane as opening a bank account.

Step 4: Certificate of marriage

The next document you need is the marriage certificate itself.  For this you need to visit the registry office in your area that deals with inter-cultural marriages.  In our case this was in WuHan.  Again, it’s like going to the bank.  Hand over some paperwork; sign your name and that’s it.  You’re legally married.  You will each be presented with a small red marriage book that functions as your marriage license.  Make sure you come to your appointment with an official photograph of you and your fiancée (this need not conform to strict passport-photo standards).  

Step 5: Wedding photos

In China it is typical to have your wedding photos taken before the ceremony, either in a local setting or against a backdrop in the studio.  Go for a walk in the park on a sunny day and you may see lots of couples having their photos taken, together and all at once.  Our wedding photo package deal included access to a wardrobe as well as hundreds of photos spread across three inner-city locations.  We took home electronic copies of the 30 or so photos we liked the most as well as far too many oversized, framed photographs of ourselves to know what to do with.

Step 6: Wedding ceremony

Couples in China tend to have the signing ceremony months before the reception.  The gap between the two events serves as a kind of better-late-than-never engagement period, even though at this stage you are legally married.  China is not a Christian country so there are no church weddings.  Instead, friends and relatives gather in the large hall of a restaurant or hotel for what is essentially a lunchtime, banquet-style meal.  China is a casual country and guests often turn up in T-shirt and jeans.

There is always a host at a Chinese wedding, who is responsible for keeping the running order.  He or she usually adds running commentary for the duration of the event.  The emotional highpoint of a Chinese wedding reception is when the bride and groom first address their in-laws as mother and father, respectively.  To complete the gesture, we offered our parents-in-law a cup of tea as an expression of gratitude.  The reception may appear to be just a bit of theatre.  But it is a very important event that makes your marriage public and socially acceptable.

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