When my friend, a local guy, asked me to be best man at his wedding, I immediately agreed, for two reasons; one, because he had helped me navigate through my early, disorientating days in China, and two, being best man would offer some insight into what is one of Chinese culture’s most important rites of passage.
The wedding celebration took place on the twenty-fifth floor function room of a new hotel in one of the city’s suburbs. Focus of the room was the stage, behind which a projector-screen displayed a slideshow of photos of bride and groom in various poses borrowed from Bond movies, fashion magazines, fantasy.
Below, in the thirteenth floor bedroom, the bride was having her make-up applied. When perfected, she knelt with her husband on the floor in front of her parents, who were sitting on the edge of the bed. Offering them cups of tea, the bride and groom asked the parents for their blessing. The parents, sipping the tea, wished the couple good luck and presented them with a hong bao. The bride and groom stood, bowed and said thank you.
There were others in the room; bridesmaids, grandparents, cousins. None of them, however, paid much attention to this ritual; instead sat on the couch looking at their smartphones’ screens. Here, I thought, was an aspect of the wedding ceremony, which aspect I had understood to be crucial to China’s approach to marriage – deference of bride and groom to parents – relegated to what appeared to be a sideshow, a box that had to be ticked off.
Questions were kindled. Why, I wondered, had nobody paid much attention to this ritual? Are family bonds, once unbreakable, under strain?
At 7.30PM, the guests arrived. The groom and his two best men, another guy and myself, stood in a grey stairwell off one of the function-room’s corners. The bride and her two bridesmaids stood at the top of a staircase descending to the function-room’s diagonally-opposite corner.
In the groom’s trembling hand was a wireless microphone. The ceremony’s host introduced the groom. The groom lifted the microphone to his lips and began to sing and entered the function-room. He walked onto the stage and down the aisle between the guests’ round tables to the back of the function-room, the foot of the staircase. The bride remained at the top.
At the other side of the room, using a script, the host asked the groom:
‘Do you love her?’
‘I love her.’
‘Really love her?’
‘I really love her!’
The guests, like an audience at a Saturday night TV variety show, cheered and applauded.
Arm-in-arm, and trailed by best men and bridesmaids, who threw flower petals, the bride and groom walked to the stage, where they stood, facing the assembled guests.
A knife was offered by the host to the couple. Hand-in-hand, working together, they cut the cake.
Watching, I thought, here is wedding ceremony dressed up as postmodern variety show; a collage of rituals and symbols, both local and borrowed from other cultures; Cinderella, karaoke, the white dress, the host, the photos, the performance…
At first glance, this appeared haphazard.
But it was precisely this apparent confusion of symbols and ritual, this mix of different cultural influences, that revealed a lot of what is happening in China today, which is the search for new ways of ordering the world, for new meaning, for new patterns of belief and value.