Three Letters, Six Etiquettes and One Confused Brit

Language tells stories. Marriage is one of the most vital things in a (traditional, anyway) Chinese family; parents of children in their 20s will often meet up, as strangers, make notes on height, and arrange for their children to meet up, with the expectation of the continuation of the family line to start. The word for ‘unmarried’, 未婚, literally just means ‘not yet marriage’, a telltale image of the expectations of the entire family.

And it’s just that, family, the perfect Confucian ideal of normalness, which shows up throughout the language. The word itself, ‘家’, meaning anything from ‘home’ and ‘family’ to ‘school’, depicts a pig (豕) underneath a roof – anyone else’s ideal? The idea of a home, a family and a marriage becomes just a thing of convenience under the pressure of the ‘family line’ – but if marriage is so essential, why has it got to be so confusing?



As with everything, marriage in China comes with an instruction manual, complete with step-by-step guide, called the ‘Six Etiquettes’, with an extra special ‘Three Letters’ hidden in it. So, here’s the six simple steps to a happy(ish) marriage (genius!):

  1. Boy’s parents – Invite a matchmaker over to the girl’s house who will decide if they are ‘compatible’ via Letter Number One. Of course the very first, basic, step is the proposal.
  2. Birthdays need to be matched to see if their zodiac signs are compatible. (Would it just be better to see if they, ya know, get on?)
  3. If the stars (or the cows and sheep) line up, the matchmaker gives gifts to the girl’s parents.
  4. Now everyone is joining in and needs to give more gifts to the girl’s family, who are doing really rather well out of this. They tell everyone what they want by a birthday list grand Letter Number Two.
  5. Boy’s family asks a fortune-teller to pick a date. Fortune teller are of course not sponsored by expensive hotel reception days – astronomy to the rescue again
  6. Finally, the wedding day. But wait – don’t fear, there are rules here as well, complete with Letter Number Three for the groom to … give to his new wife. Couldn’t they just, you know, talk to each other? Respectable old women to tie up the bride’s hair unfortunately don’t come included in this pack.

So, there you have it – how could it be more simple? I know why Chinese parents are anxious about their leftover women now; all those gifts they’re missing out on!

Things I learned this week:

  • Pigs under roofs – the perfect recipe for your family home.
  • Everything needs a step-by-step guide.
  • The parents of the bride get a ton of presents. Why wouldn’t you get married?

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, make sure to look around at some other posts, share with your friends or subscribe on the homepage to be notified when ‘Behind the Firewall’ is released in the week beginning May 15th, 2017.


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