In traditional Chinese culture, the engagement period was a time for families to introduce themselves and show their support. Marriages were arranged by a matchmaker, so the bride and groom’s family typically did not know each other. The families introduced themselves by presenting gifts in a formal manner meant to show off wealth, respect, and compensate the bride’s family for losing a daughter.
This custom of giving gifts to celebrate the engagement is still practiced today. Different regions in China vary widely in their engagement customs, but these are the typical order of events:
In order to show their approval, the groom’s family gives ‘grand gifts’ to the bride’s family. Grand gifts should come in pairs or abundance and include:
- Cash in a red envelope that contains the number 9 ($9, $99, $999) because the word nine sounds like ‘forever’
- Western and Chinese cakes
- Dried delicacies, such as seafood, oyster mushrooms, fat cai, coconuts, lychee, peanuts
- Bottles of wine or liquor
- Fresh fruit
- Tea leaves
- Meat-roast pork, fish, roast chicken
- Gold jewelry
The bride’s family must send back half of the gifts and include some additional gifts to indicate that they aren’t greedy. These additional gifts are placed in a basket and can include ginger roots, pomegranate, and pastries–all symbols of wealth and fertility.
When both sides signal their approval of the marriage, the families consult a fortune teller to select an auspicious date based on the names of the bride and groom, their birthdays, and astronomical activities, such as moons and tides. Fortune tellers will also avoid unlucky dates, such as anything containing the number 4 (which sounds like death).
After the date is selected, the couple will send elaborate boxes of cakes and cookies to friends and family to announce the engagement and wedding date.
Even if you think sending gold and meat back and forth is too weird for your engagement, you should still be thoughtful about how you introduce your families. Chinese parents tend to stay very involved even after marriage and can provide invaluable support by cooking, watching their grandchildren, and other kinds of help. It is common for multiple generations to live together, so your in-laws may one day be your roommates. If you are marrying into a traditional Chinese family, you should consider adapting some of these customs to start the engagement off on the right note.
The key to a smooth introduction is to give “face,” or show respect to both sets of parents and avoid potentially embarrassing situations. This can be done by preparing the parents ahead of time with what to expect when they meet each other.
If the families live in the same area, invite your parents to a meal at your home. That way, there is no stress about what kind of restaurant will appeal to everyone and who will pay. Encourage the families to bring some nice gifts for the other side, including a fruit basket, alcohol, and flowers (but not white ones). If they don’t speak the same language, make sure that a family member is available to translate so they aren’t sitting in silence while you are busy performing hosting duties.
If parents are divorced, have each parent meet the other family separately. It may take a few meals and rounds of gifts, but it’s worth it in order to avoid any awkwardness.
If the families won’t be able to meet until the wedding, ask them to arrive a few days early so they can have some time to get to know each other. Devote this time to letting the immediate families acquaint themselves before the frenzy of the wedding takes over.
We don’t think you should let superstition guide your wedding date, but in case you would like to consult a Chinese almanac, here’s a fun resource. Input your time zone and month and year of when you’d like to get married, and it will generate some dates. But feel free to ignore it if you don’t feel like getting married on a Tuesday.
We love the tradition of handing out baked goods to announce your engagement to the Chinese members of the family. After all, isn’t everything better when it’s accompanied by cakes and cookies? (Not to mention that your parents’ colleagues and friends will often reciprocate with a red envelope.)
You can purchase bridal cakes at a Chinese bakery, but you may have to package them yourself. The most popular pastries have a flakey crust, are filled with lotus paste, and have a double happiness stamp. Kee Wah Bakery sells beautiful wedding pastry boxes, but in the United States, they are only available in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
If you don’t have access to a Chinese bakery, you can fill decorative boxes with high end butter cookies and palmiers. These boxes are gorgeous.