The wedding ring - a symbol of eternal love, one without a beginning and an end. So often taken to be the icon of a marriage in today’s society. However, it was not always the case in ancient day China. Where today’s couples seal their love with a precious solitaire set in 14 or 18 carat white gold, the couples of the past chose to seal their wedding promises through elaborate betrothal gifts and fine jewellery. It’s truly a reflection of the amalgamation of cultures that is modern day Singapore, a far cry from the cultural-centric China of the past, where rituals and ceremonies stemmed from a belief in the country’s cultural greatness.
The wedding can therefore be seen as an illustration of how cultural influences shape societal traditions, which in turn result in the development of societal norms and practises, consequently shaping new cultural norms. This essay will specifically examine how cultural norms in China affected the societal practice of the traditional Chinese wedding, and trace the development of this societal tradition to present day Singapore, explaining the socio-cultural context of today’s Chinese wedding.
Traditional weddings in China were centred primarily on the family. This can be seen in the intimate workings behind the wedding and how family members were directly involved in processes such as the betrothal and the wedding preparations. In fact, a substantial number of couples did not know whom they were marrying until the wedding night itself. The large degree of family involvement can be attributed to the largely agrarian society in China, where life revolved around the families because it was crucial to have a large number of people to be involved in farm work such as growing crops. Ba Jin’s socio-cultural satire Jia Chun Qiu typifies the extent of family involvement in the wedding preparations of the eldest son Jue Xin. The absence of individual decision-making can be seen in how Jue was totally excluded from the preparations, but he willingly complied out of responsibility and duty to the family.
Looking at Singapore in the 1950s to 1960s, the focus of the Chinese wedding had shifted slightly more towards the individual. There was still a significant degree of family involvement in the betrothal and wedding ceremony, but more and more emphasis began to be placed on concepts such as a freedom to love and a freedom to choose one’s bride or groom. This cultural shift can be attributed to the absence of a large family setting during that time, with hardly any agricultural land to speak about in industrialising Singapore. In addition, children began to be schooled in Western education and began to be more influenced by more “Western” notions of love and choice as illustrated by literature such as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Singapore today is a far cry even from the Singapore in the 1960s. Economic growth and rapid material wealth have vastly transformed the country, even in a post-1997 Asian economic crisis society. This has significantly affected the societal psyche, with individualism becoming the order of the day, although some importance is still attached to family ties. As such, Chinese wedding practices have tended to focus largely on the individual, with the family still having some say in the nature of the wedding ceremony. Betrothals are also almost a relic of the past with almost all weddings decided by the couple themselves who now choose with the basis of having a “life partner”. Indeed the shift in the times can be attributed to an amalgamation of cultural norms in modern day Singapore.
The Chinese wedding truly reflects the pulse of change in society. When couples today don their beautiful tailor-made wedding gowns and black-tie tuxedos, they live out the traditions of their parents, but in a way most traditionalists would have never considered as conceivable. And although the bridal outfit may have changed over time and the exact ingredients of the tea ceremony altered in the process, the wedding ceremony still remains a celebration of union for the couple. It’s the time when couples promise to stay together “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health”, till death do they part.
above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 23 February 2004.
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