Traditionally in China an engagement was arranged by parents or matchmakers and consisted of six courtesies from beginning to end:
1. Marriage proposal
2. Asking of the names
3. Praying for good fortune
4. Sending betrothal gifts
5. Sending invitations
6. Welcoming the bride
These traditional engagements are called ‘Dingqin’, literally meaning fixed by the parents or blood relatives (Ding = agreement or fixed and Qin = parent or blood relative).
While some families may still opt for an arranged marriage or set their children up with other friends’ children, many young people in China find their own soul mates and decide for themselves when to get engaged. This is known as ‘Dinghun’ which literally means agreement to wed or marry (Ding = agreement and Hun = to wed or marry). These engagements often follow the western custom involving a diamond ring and a man on one knee. Or as is becoming a worldwide a flash mob surprise proposal(!).
While modern engagements differ from the past, most still follow some of the Chinese engagement traditions including offering betrothal gifts, a bridal dowry, and consultation with a fortune teller. A hybrid engagement or the best of both so to speak for the modern era.
Chinese engagement customs and traditions bear a striking resemblance to the Indian customs surrounding engagement and marriage. Traditionally parents or the elders of the family would choose a life partner for the son or daughter of the house. These decisions were based on caste and family, and astrologers and pandits would be consulted to ensure the horoscopes and stars were aligned. There would be discussions of dowry, betrothal gifts and ceremonies leading up to the wedding itself. Like many Chinese couples, Indian couples now also opt for a more western approach to getting engaged – with some traditional elements (why choose if you don’t have to?!). I’m just not sure you can distinguish the two in Hindi like you can in Mandarin…
Why am I focusing on the rituals of engagement? A couple of weeks ago I said yes to the question ‘Marry me?’. There were no parents or family elders, no fortune tellers or astrologers, no betrothal gifts or even a diamond ring. There was however, a full moon, a beautiful beach, a sky filled with stars and a man who loved me very much. It was perfect and I couldn’t have been happier. What made our joy complete, was knowing how happy this would make our parents and family. We may have opted for the Dinghun, but that doesn’t mean we don’t value the family element the Dingqin, and we can’t wait to celebrate our engagement with them we’re home. Some elements of tradition and ritual are too precious to let fall by the wayside in the name of modernity and progress. And nowhere is that more evident than in a place like Beijing where old and new, traditional and modern have found a beautiful balance. A balance I know I’ll be striving for as I begin this new chapter of my life.