In the past, Chinese parents and matchmakers arranged marriage engagements. The engagement consisted of six courtesies: a marriage proposal, asking for names, praying for good fortune, sending betrothal gifts, sending invitations, and welcoming the bride.
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match
A family would hire a matchmaker, and the matchmaker would go to another family's home to seek a proposal. Then both families would consult a fortune teller who analyzed the man and woman's birth dates, times, names, and other vital information. If they were deemed compatible, a marriage deal would be brokered. Betrothal gifts would be exchanged and a wedding planned.
While some families may still opt for an arranged marriage or set their children up with their friends' children, most modern Chinese find their own soul mates and decide when to get married. The man often presents the woman with a diamond engagement ring. But many Chinese engagement traditions including the exchange of betrothal gifts, a bridal dowry, and consultation with a fortune teller remain important today.
Betrothal Gifts as a Tradition
Once a couple decides to get married, the groom's family customarily sends gifts to the bride's family. These commonly include symbolic foods and cakes. In some provinces, however, tradition dictates that the groom must give his future in-laws money for the privilege of marrying their daughter, often in excess of $10,000. Once the bride's family accepts the gifts, the wedding cannot be called off lightly.
Bridal Dowry as a Tradition
In the old days, the bridal dowry consisted of the gifts a bride brought to her husband's home after marriage. Once a woman married, she left her parents' home and became part of her husband's family. Her principal responsibility shifted to her husband's family. The value of her dowry determined a woman's status in her new household.
In modern times, a dowry serves a more practical purpose in helping the couple get set up in their new home, where they usually reside independently of the groom's parents. A bride's dowry may include a tea set, bedding, furniture, bathroom accessories, small appliances, and her personal clothing and jewelry.
A Fortune Teller Consultation
Before confirming an engagement, the families consult a fortune teller to ensure the couple's compatibility. The fortune teller analyzes their names, birth dates, birth years, and birth times to determine if they can live in harmony. Once the fortune teller gives the OK, traditionalists seal the engagement with "three matchmakers and six proofs": an abacus, a measuring vessel, a ruler, a pair of scissors, a set of scales, and a mirror
Finally, the families consult a Chinese almanac to determine an auspicious day for the wedding. Some modern Chinese brides and grooms choose to announce their engagement and deliver their wedding invitations with traditional double happiness cakes, though many others forego this tradition in favor of a standard card sent through the mail.