Late last semester a friend and I ducked over to Ningbo, a city on China’s east coast, to be groosmen at our friend’s wedding. Because of the city’s proximity to Shanghai and its status as a second-tier port city, some Western influence is present, but it was described to me as “the real China”, somewhere between the glitz of larger cities and less developed rural regions.
During the wedding and the days surrounding it I was struck by an omniscient, almost hyperbolic emphasis on monetary wealth displayed by my friend and his family. To me it resembled an unconscious yet intentional departure from the historical collectivisation and oppression that saturated China’s social sphere and came to a climax at the end of the last century.
The main ceremony was at the city’s newest five star hotel, in a dining hall the size of the Quad’s inner courtyard, complete with a catwalk emblazed with roses down the middle, and a cinema-sized projector screen at centre stage. Presented by a flamboyant, blue-sequin-toting host, the proceedings to a non-Chinese speaker resembled a game show more than anything else.
The MC started with a serenade to the bride- and groom-to-be, cheesier than grilled cheese, and then demanded the groom have a turn with the mic. Within minutes the couple were facing each other hand-in-hand, as sickeningly pink love hearts blossomed and erupted on the screen behind them. After a period of incantations and testaments of love yelled at an unbearable volume, “I do” equivalents were exchanged; the newlyweds locked lips, performed the traditional three bows, and were whisked off-stage for the night’s real entertainment.
As food was served and alcohol flowed, the host remained the centre of attention as he called out the winning tickets for the evening’s raffle; a lucky handful walked away at the end of the night with microwaves, toasters, kettles and even an iPhone. Those brave or red enough from drink had their way with the karaoke machine, as photographs from the morning’s more traditional rituals floated across the screen à la MS Powerpoint.
A central motif was the bride’s dog, a miniature shitzu. Throughout the day and night the happy bride changed her outfit five or six times, to include both the traditional Chinese red and a more Western-influenced white. Each time she re-dressed her noble hound followed suit, complete with veil and train. As the evening continued to croon another love song or two, an apparently infinite supply of soft toys were thrown into the crowd.
Tradition maintains that the bride and groom must toast every guest present at the ceremony, which becomes quite a feat at a wedding of 250 people; hence, bridesmaids and groomsmen are selected partly for sentimental reasons and partly for their alleged drinking ability.
As I followed the newlyweds around the room, toasting and mumbling awkward nihao’s and xie xie’s, I was instructed to approach only the men in the room. I was to offer them cigarettes and fill up their glasses, but only to drink with women when they approached me. While men monopolised the bar tab and abused the karaoke facilities, women were for the most part reserved and deprived of the lax demeanour of their male counterparts.
My travel companion and I quickly became the most highly demanded drinking partners at the ceremony as the only Caucasians in the room. It was here that my liver endured its most gruelling assessment since first semester of university. My most common suitors were 50-60 year-old men, who had lived in pre-reform years. I was perplexed as to why they appeared so keen to drink with a 21-year-old Australian student, but later realised that we were not only novelty items to these guests but also, to an extent, a display of the groom’s affluence and time spent in Australia.
Twenty minutes into the toasting I found myself more intoxicated than I was comfortable with, carrying two large glasses (one for beer, one for wine) with cigarettes stuffed between my fingers, behind my ears and into my pockets. Things only got better from there, as confusing drinking games and challenges grew more and more complex.
While an overt emphasis was placed on futuristic individualism and lavish lifestyle – which to me seemed representative of a departure from the shackles of the equalising force of the old regime – there lingered more subtle elements of tradition and patriarchal dominance.
The massive screens, the giveaways, the unearthly MC, the ever-present love hearts: all of these to me were indicative of a newfound fixation with marriage-for-love (as opposed to the historical arranged marriages driven by social security and status), and the ceremony itself seemed partially motivated by a desire to express semi-imagined dimensions of wealth.
While some aspects of the ceremony appeared as over-zealous hypercorrections in compensation for the nation’s socialist past, other aspects remained firmly rooted in history and tradition.
Towards the end of the night I was sitting with the groom and could not help but ask – “What was with all that?” “I don’t know, man”, was all he replied.
Neither do I.