Folk-Lore/Volume 1/The Marriage Ceremonies of the Manchus

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THE MARRIAGE CEREMONIES OF THE MANCHUS.


THE accompanying account of the marriage ceremonies of the Manchus was obtained by me from a Manchu gentleman, who hailed from Peking, and who taught me the Pekingese dialect. In order to ensure the accuracy of the account, I sent it to Peking from Hong-Kong, where I was residing, to my friend, Mr. Addis, of the Hong-Kong and Shanghai Bank, and requested him to get it checked by some of those better acquainted than myself with the Manchu customs. This he very kindly did. I was pleased to find, on his returning the account to me, that only a very few alterations had been suggested. These have been inserted in the original, and I think I may safely say that the account as now given is a complete and accurate one. One of those who, through Mr. Addis’s kind intervention, was good enough to revise my papers, was Mr. Arendt, of the German Legation at Peking, a well-known Sinologue, now Professor of Chinese at Berlin. In addition to revising my papers, he also wrote some stray notes on Chinese marriage ceremonies. These, coming from such an authority, cannot fail to be interesting, and have therefore been appended to the account of the Manchu marriage ceremonies.



When a boy has reached the age of fifteen, his parents, especially if they are well off, fearing that the lad may become wild, make arrangements for his marriage by entrusting some relation, friend, or middle-man with the task of selecting a wife for him. The wealth of the woman’s family is not considered of so much importance as its past history. A girl of good looks, and able to perform the heavier, as well as the lighter, duties of the household, is preferred, without regard to the extent of her dot, as rich families generally intermarry with each other. The girl’s bring-up, her behaviour to her parents, and her temper, are all generally carefully inquired into. Literary families, as a rule, prefer a girl who has some knowledge of reading and writing. When the bride is found by some friend or relation, her family and that of the bridegroom are usually well known to each other, so that inquiry into the past history of each is not necessary. Sometimes, however, the family of the man knows that a certain household contains a fair maid, with whom they are anxious to form an alliance, but, not being personally acquainted with her family, the employment of the services of a professional middle-man becomes necessary, who is deputed to broach the subject to the girl’s family, but not till the fee he is to be paid, if successful, has been settled. The middle-man proceeds to the girl’s family and opens the conversation by discussing ordinary topics. On seeing the daughter, he at once becomes loud in praises of her appearance and future good fortune, and asks her mother casually if she is yet betrothed. The mother may reply in an off-hand way that she is not, but that she would be glad if the middle-man would find a suitable husband for her. The middle-man avails himself at once of his opportunity, by telling her that, by the most fortunate coincidence, a certain family has a son, aged fifteen or sixteen, who is a student, distinguished in appearance, and of gentlemanly bearing, not given to drinking, opium smoking, licentiousness, or gambling, and who wishes to find a wife; that his family is well-off, and his parents highly respectable; that the son in question is their special pet, and they particularly wish to see him well settled; and that a match between the two families would be in every way suitable. In this way he works on the feelings of the girl’s mother, until she promises that she will consult with her good-man, and report the result of their deliberations in a day or two. The middle-man then returns in hot haste to the bridegroom’s family, and offers his congratulations, declaring that the matter has been arranged satisfactorily, though such is far from the truth, and having obtained his fee, he departs, promising to return in two days to arrange as to the interchange of visits between the two families, for the purpose of viewing the bride and bridegroom.

If the parents of the bride consent, the middle-man on revisiting them is presented with a fee, and asked to arrange a date for viewing the bride and bridegroom. Should they refuse, the middle-man dares not show his face at the bridegroom’s house. Before visiting each other, both families institute private inquiries as to the history and standing of each other.

Inspecting the Bridegroom and Bride.—After both parties have consented to the match, and are well acquainted with each other, a lucky date is chosen for the inspection of the bridegroom and his family by the bride’s mother, and of the bride and her family by the bridegroom’s mother. The bride’s mother, on arrival at the bridegroom’s family, first observes if the bridegroom is well grown and a fit match for her daughter, and then asks him a few questions to see that he is not dumb, afterwards turning her attention to his parents, and finally to the house and its furniture.

The bridegroom’s mother then pays her visit to the bride’s home, examining the bride’s appearance, speaking a few words to her, and asking her to show her round the house, in order to satisfy herself that the bride is not lame, the latter being, of course, quite ignorant of her intention.

The inspection of the bride and bridegroom does not take place sometimes—as, for example, when the distance between the two families is great. In such cases a relative or friend must secure that both parties are suitable, and he is held responsible if they are found not to be so.

Exchange of Cards.—The next step is the exchange of cards containing the three generations—the names of the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of each family written on red cards. If these are found satisfactory, the interchange of birthday or horoscope cards takes place. These cards contain eight characters, there being two characters for the year, month, day, and hour of the bride and bride- groom’s birth, which are examined by a fortune-teller. If they agree, the bridegroom sends a present to the bride of some jewellery, and the day is fixed for the sending of the chief betrothal presents to the bride.

Sending of the Betrothal Presents.—In ordinary families these consist of a head ornament of gold or gilt, a pair of bracelets, and two rings, and are sent along with four near female relations of the bridegroom. The presents are fixed on large red satin cards, and placed in jewellery cases, wrapped in red. Outside is a jade sceptre, which is meant to express a desire that everything may go with the happy couple as they wish.

On the arrival of the presents at the bride’s house the bearers of them are met by the four ladies who are assisting the bride. The presents are placed on a table covered with a red cloth, and, after the bearers of them have exchanged the usual compliments, one of them takes up the gade sceptre, and presents it to the bride’s mother, saying: “Heaven has decreed that the two families should be joined in matrimony; this sceptre is a sure sign that their good fortune will be as their hearts desire.” The sceptre is after- wards laid on the lap of the bride. The cases containing the other presents are next opened, and, after they have been admired, the party retires to see the bride, taking the presents with them. The bride, dressed in red, is seated on a couch (the K’ang) with her face towards the south. The female representatives of the bridegroom, in order of age, approach her, and each takes a hair-pin from her hair and replaces it by another, wishing her, at the same time, every good fortune.

The next ceremony is called:

The Sending of a Letter and Presents.—After the date for the marriage has been fixed, the bridegroom, about three months before the appointed time, selects a lucky day for sending a communication to his bride, announcing the day chosen for the marriage, which is accompanied by a goose dyed red, a jar of wine, four pigs, four sheep, four ducks, which are all dyed red on the back. The presents vary according to the wealth or position of the families. Four of each kind of animal is the smallest number presented, the usual number being eight of each, but never more than sixteen of each kind. The poorer classes may dispense with sending living animals, and may send only presents of clothes which are sometimes borrowed and afterwards returned. The bearer of the communication is always a very near male relation.

In addition to the above presents, the material for bedding, for the red jacket and green trousers worn by the bride when she enters the bridal sedan, is sent and has to be made up in the bride’s family. Ornaments, clothes, gold and silver head ornaments, a head-dress, are also among the presents; which are brought back with the bride’s trousseau to the bridegroom’s house.

The Marriage Days.—These generally extend over three days, the first day being the one on which the trousseau is sent to the bridegroom’s house, and on the evening of which the bride goes to the bridegroom’s abode at about twelve o’clock at night; the second being the marriage day, on which the friends of the bridegroom are present; and the third, the day on which the mother and friends of the bride go to the bridegroom’s house to partake of the congratulatory feast. Generally now, only two days are necessary for these ceremonies, and in the case of the poor, one day. A master of the ceremonies is engaged, who directs the ceremonial, and whose word is law.

About three days before the “marriage days” invitations to a feast are issued by both families. The relations and friends who attend are expected to bring presents generally to the bride, such as purses, handkerchiefs, fans, shoes, stockings, etc. These presents are termed “additions to the (bride’s) trunks”. The feast consists of many courses, and is generally a combination of the Manchu and Chinese forms of entertainment. The feast given at the bride’s house takes place on the day on which the trousseau is sent; at this feast friends and relations attend. On the second day there is also a feast at the bride’s house, the guests being limited to near relatives. The latter feast takes place before the bride starts for the bridegroom’s house.

The trousseau is sent to the bridegroom’s house at noon, accompanied by representatives of the bride, six, eight, or ten, and is met half-way by an equal number of representatives of the bridegroom and a band of musicians.

On the evening of the first day the marriage couch is carefully placed by two women, employed by the bridegroom’s family, who must have a father and mother-in-law, husband, and children living. The bridal chair is despatched for the bride with a band of musicians before the marriage couch is placed. It is occupied by the bridegroom’s mother or aunt, who goes to meet the bride. When she returns she occupies an ordinary sedan. Sometimes the bridal sedan is occupied by a child of ten years old, whose presence is supposed to be an omen of a numerous progeny of male children. The procession to the bride’s house also consists of six, eight, and four male friends or relations of the bridegroom. Each of them takes with him several cust wrapped in red paper, and sometimes tea, or both. They also have a handful of cust, called “the heavens full of stars”—symbolical of wealth and prosperity. When the bridal sedan arrives at the bride’s home, the mother of the bridegroom is invited to enter the house. She enters, and the doors are closed, the remainder of the procession staying outside. Children in the bride’s house then demand the packets of cust wrapped in paper, which are handed to them through the crevices of the door, and the bride’s friends from inside request certain pieces of music to be played. When these are finished, the doors are opened at the request of the bridegroom’s friends, and the cust, called “the heavens full of stars”, is thrown into the house as an omen of wealth and prosperity. The bridegroom’s representatives then enter the house, as does also the chair. Mutual congratulations follow over a cup of tea. While the female relations are making arrangements for the bride to leave her home, the male friends depart, and are soon followed by the bridegroom’s mother or aunt, who, after she has placed an embroidered piece of silk over the bride’s head, which covers her face, bids farewell to her. The chair is now “disinfected” by the bride’s brothers with incense, to drive away evil spirits, and inside the chair a calendar is placed, as it contains a number of names of idols who can control evil spirits. The bride is then carried or assisted into the bridal sedan by her elder brother or maternal uncle. She is dressed in red, and weeps loudly. The sedan-carriers are next “tipped”, and directed to carry their burden with great care, after which the sedan departs for the bridegroom’s house. The younger brother, or nephew, of the bride runs by its side holding on to the shaft. Two men run in front of it, each of them holding a red cloth, which they hold up when the sedan passes a temple or well, in order to ward off evil influences. The mother follows in an ordinary sedan, and the other relations in carts. When the sedan arrives at the bridegroom’s house, the door is shut, and crackers are fired to drive away evil spirits. After this the mother and bride’s relations are requested to enter the house, and the sedan is carried inside, but has to pass over a charcoal pan, as a sign that the happy pair will be as brilliant as fire. The sedan is placed inside the door. Before the bride’s mother opens the blind and assists the bride out, the bridegroom fires three arrows at the blinds. The bride, on coming out, has to step over a miniature saddle, as a sign that she will never marry a second husband, in accordance with the saying:

“Just as a good horse will not carry two saddles,
A chaste maiden will not marry two husbands.”

The floor from the door to the bridal chamber is covered with red carpet, along which the bride is conducted to the chamber, after she has worshipped heaven and earth with the bridegroom. Her mother now bids her farewell, and returns to her own home.

When in the bridal chamber, the bridegroom and bride sit upon a bed, face to face. An “offspring dumpling” is brought in, and handed to the bridegroom, who eats a mouthful. It is next handed to the bride, who takes a small piece into her mouth, and afterwards spits it out, as an omen that the marriage will be productive of a numerous offspring. The bridegroom then comes out of the bridal chamber, and the bride is left alone, still sitting on the bed. The first ceremony on the second day is called “the holding of the precious vase”. This vase contains gold, silver, precious stones and grain, and is covered with red silk, and tied with silk thread. The bride holds it in her arms all day long, until the pair retire to rest. During the day, the bridegroom attends to the guests, who are engaged in feasting. The majority of them disperse at noon, leaving behind only those who are either related to, or very intimate with, the family. They stay on till five or six in the evening, when they also leave. About ten o’clock the bridegroom returns to the bridal chamber, accompanied by his mother, and ascends the bridal couch, on which the bride is still sitting. On the four corners of the bed are placed laichees, lung ugan, chestnuts, and dates, which are intended to indicate that the pair will produce an early, numerous, and intelligent offspring. There is a lamp in the room, called “the longevity lamp”, which is kept burning all night. Before the pair retire to rest, the mother of the bridegroom, holding in her hand a bowl containing “longevity dough”, feeds both the bride and bridegroom, and then departs, leaving the happy pair alone.

The bridegroom leaves the bridal chamber soon after, and sends a congratulatory invitation to the bride’s family, asking her relations to come to a congratulatory feast. They must be invited six times before they accept. The feast generally takes place before daybreak, at three o’clock in the morning. The guests are met, on arrival at the main entrance, by the bridegroom, who kneels with his back to the house. Three glasses of wine are poured out by the attendant, and handed to the bridegroom, who presents them to his mother-in-law, and then three glasses to each of the other guests, which are not drunk but handed back to the attendants. The guests are next invited into the banqueting-shed, each guest sitting at a separate table, accompanied by two hosts. Tea, wine, and meats are served, but are left untouched, the guests interchanging compliments, until a course of soup is served. Each of the guests presents the attendant with a red packet containing money. After retiring from the banquet, a congratulatory visit is paid by all to the bridal chamber. The bride now, for the first time, uncovers her face, and descends from the bridal couch. After uncovering her face, the bride cuts off the hair hanging over her temples, as a sign that she is now a married woman, and offers tea and tobacco to her guests to show that she is the hostess. The guests then depart, the bridegroom pledging them, as on their arrival, with three glasses of wine.

The bride and bridegroom now partake of the bridal feast, and, when it is over, the bride visits the parents of the bridegroom, and worships the ancestors of the family and the god of the hearth, in the last case holding a bundle of firewood in her arms, as a sign that she knows how to cook. These ceremonies over, the bride and bridegroom “kotow” to the parents of the bridegroom, and the nearest senior relations of the family, in the order of their seniority, who present the happy couple with presents of money wrapped in red paper. The members of the family younger than the happy pair have to “kotow” to them. After all the marriage ceremonies are completed, the bride opens her trunks, from which she takes two pairs of shoes and stockings, and, placing them on a copper tray, presents them to her mother and father-in-law. She also makes presents to all the members of the family. A lucky day is chosen for the ceremony, entitled “upsetting the precious vase”, referred to above. Its contents are upset on the bed, and the bride and bridegroom struggle to see who will pick up most of them. The person who is most successful is considered lucky.

On the fourth day after the marriage, emissaries are sent from the bride’s family to convey the daughter home, where she and the bridegroom are feasted. After the pair have been married a month, the bride returns to her father’s family, staying there for a few days. She is not generally accompanied by the bridegroom, though, in some instances, he goes with her.


Stray Notes.[1]—It is strange that the Chinese should so firmly stick to the custom of go-betweens, as these latter individuals are counted amongst disreputable persons. So, amongst others, Chuhi tells us, in his Instruction for the Young (Hsiao Hsüch), and in a Pekin popular proverb the go-betweens are numbered amongst those categories of people whom “it is right to put to death without their having committed any special crime”—wu²-tsui³, chiuk’o³ sha¹. The Chinese believe that marriages are made in heaven. One of their demi-gods is the Yüch-hsia-lào’rh³ (“Old Man under the Moon”) who ties together, with an invisible red string, the feet of those who are destined by fate to become man and wife. A goddess of love will also be met with in the Hung-lou-mêng (“Dream of the Red Chamber”), The finding of a suitable bride is further expressed by the wortds, “san-shêng-yüan” (Hung-lou-mêng, chap. i), “the desire of the three lives”, man and wife being destined for each other befre they have come down to this lower world, becoming man and wife below here, and being expected to remain true to each other, even after the death of one of them.

An important marriage ceremony, not mentioned, if I remember right, in the paper, reminds us also of the fable of “The Old Man under the Moon”. Before the consummation of marriage, whilst the new married couple are sitting together on the “k’ang”, they drink wine alternately from two cups, which are tied together by a red string. The bridegroom, after having sipped from his cup, hands it over to the bride, and the bride hands hers over to her husband, and so repeatedly. This ceremony is called h’o chi’n³, or h’o-kin, “to unite the cups.”

The Manchu bride sits in a red chair, the Chinese bride in a Mant’ien-hsing—a chair covered all over with glass ornaments, and, therefore, bearing this name, which means, “the sky covered all over with stars.”

I did not know the explanation given in the paper of the saddle on the threshold, over which the bride has to step, but it is decidedly the origin of this custom. At present, besides the saddle, they put frequently also an apple on the threshold. The Chinese name of this latter fruit is p’ing–kuo, or, abridged, p’ing, which means also “peace”, whilst the saddle is called an in Chinese. An means also “tranquillity”. Therefore this custom expresses a wish that peace (p’ing, represented by the apple) and tranquillity (an, represented by the saddle) may reign in the house of the newly married couple. The whole custom is probably derived from that of the saddle alone, as explained in the paper.

The bride must sit three whole days and nights on the k’ang. This is, I believe, mentioned, but perhaps not quite clearly stated in the paper.

It is not a very rare thing that the bride’s family make it a condition that the couple, after marriage, should come and live in the house of the parents of the bride. This is called ju-chui. A pleasant drama in two parts, the Tê-i-yüan, is based on such a marriage. There, the additional condition is even imposed on the husband that he is not permitted ever to leave the house of his parents-in-law.

Frequently, especially in the country, children of different sex are promised to each other in marriage whilst they are still quite young. They live separately until marriage; after marriage they are called chua-chiu fu-ch’i—“man and wife [who were promised to each other while they still wore] chua-chiu’s”—i.e., those small pigtails, of which Chinese babies have frequently two, one on each side of the head, and sometimes a third one on the top.



  1. By Mr. C. Arendt, now Professor of Chinese at Berlin, in the Institution for the Teaching of Modern Orental Languages. J. H. S. L.