Chinese has many rituals related to births and birthdays, weddings and funerals. These are the three milestones of a person’s life and a multitude of rituals has evolved around each of these major events; some based on necessity and logic, others based on religious precepts or folk superstitions. Our point is that the forms of the rituals are of secondary importance; of greater significance are the moral values underlying these traditional practices.
Childbirth has always been regarded as an important stage in life in Chinese societies. Hence, there are naturally plenty of rituals to follow and taboos to avoid before, during and after a pregnancy.
Marriage symbolises the establishment of a new family by a man and a woman, and preparations for childbearing. Hence, wedding traditions includes childbearing traditions.
Praying to the Deities
“Flower picking” traditions from Quanzhou and Xun Hua Cong (巡花丛) tradition from Zhangzhou are tradition based on the belief that the primordial deity of every woman is a flower shrub in another realm. The growth of the flower shrub is believed to be related to the childbearing ability of the woman. When a woman finds it particularly difficult to conceive, people point the cause to a problem in the flower shrub. The flowers on the flower shrub reflect the children she will bear, where white flowers suggest that the baby would be a boy, and red flowers suggest a girl. While there are many ways to pray to the deities, there is a similarity among these ways – people give back and thank the deities when their prayers are answered as a form of thanksgiving for a child.
Typically, women who are unable to conceive would eat food with specific symbolisms that aid in conception. For example, the bride’s dowry will normally include the “offspring bucket”, which includes rice dumplings, red coloured eggs, dates, peanuts, mandarins and chestnuts.
In the Hokkien dialect, “灯” (lamp) and the Chinese character “丁” (man), have similar pronunciations. Hence, “gifting lamps” is a symbolism of “gifting丁”, which represents gifting a new child. During Lunar New Year, the maiden homes of newly wedded women and women who have not conceived for a long time will send a pair of red and white lotus lamps to the in-law’s family, in hopes of their daughter bearing a child soon. The pair of lotus lamp are then hung at the head of the bed. If the white lamp goes out first, the next baby will be a boy; on the contrary, if the red lamp goes out first, the next baby will be a girl.
Other Fertility Rituals
Each dialect group has their own The Hakkas have many traditions focused on blessing newlyweds with fertility. Traditionally, the Hakkas will paste a piece of red paper with blessings of fertility written on the bridal sedan chair. The bride will bring along items representing good fertility, such as tea leaves, peanuts, mung beans, sesame, and red chicken eggs etc. The bride’s family may present a pair of chickens (a male and a female) or lamps to the couple as well. These traditions and gifts represent well wishes for the couple to give birth and pass on the family name.
Rituals and Taboos During Pregnancy
Due to poor medical and sanitary conditions in the past, many families were concerned about a difficult childbirth. This gave rise to many taboos and superstitions during the pregnancy. Nowadays, with the advancement of technology, pregnant women will go for regular check-ups with their doctors, so as to ensure that the baby will be safely delivered, and so that they can receive any medical assistance if necessary. Hence, this is why the reasonings behind some of these customs and taboos are more difficult to explain. Despite so, a significant number of these rituals are still applicable in today’s modern context.
Taboos During Pregnancy
There are several taboos for women to avoid during their pregnancy. According to Hakka tradition, pregnant women are not allowed to be involved with funerals, not allowed to enter the room of newlyweds, and not allowed to stay overnight at the couple’s maternal family. It is believed that the infant will be met with misfortune if the mother is involved in a funeral procession. This is a common taboo for not just the Hakkas, but the Hokkiens and the other dialect groups as well. If a pregnant woman enters the room of a pair of newlyweds, this is seen as a clash of two auspicious events, which may result in misfortune being brought upon either or both parties involved. In areas such as Changting, there is also the taboo of pregnant woman hugging and touching the children of other people, as it is believed that her baby will become “jealous” of the affection given elsewhere, causing him or her to have sleepless nights.
According to the Hakkas, during pregnancy, the husband is to look after his wife meticulously and refrain from reproaching or hitting her. Outsiders are not allowed to scold or humiliate the wife or mutter inauspicious words as it is rumoured that this will lead to a miscarriage. The husband is also banned from assembling a knife as it would result in a difficult birth. The woman is not allowed to eat snake and monkey meat or cross over dead bodies, or else it would result in the baby having deformities.
According to Cantonese culture, when a woman goes through pregnancy, there are several taboos that the whole family will have to take note of in order to avoid offending the highly respected “God of Fertility”. There should not be any form of calligraphy works or pictures hung inside the room of the pregnant woman. The usage of sewing kits and scissors should be avoided as well. The family should also try to avoid moving any household furniture as much as possible and also avoid doing any activity that might be too provocative or aggressive in nature in front of the pregnant woman, such as slaughtering poultry or shovelling. These taboos are rather similar to that of Teochew traditions. It is believed that using sewing kits and scissors will result in the birth of a baby with a cleft lip. Hammering nails in the room of the pregnant woman will result in the baby being born with disabilities, while building or renovating the house will result in the baby being born prematurely. Watching monkey shows will also cause the baby to be born hyperactive.
Speeding Up Labour
Speeding up the process of labour is known as Cui Sheng (催生) in Chinese culture. According to Hokkien traditions, ten to twenty days before the baby is due, the unborn child’s maternal grandparents would bring chicken, eggs, noodles and dried flour to the in-laws to wish for safe labour. In the case where the grandmother has passed on, the aunt would replace her position. The family would also hold a feast in the afternoon to welcome family members from the in-laws.
As for Cantonese families, the pregnant woman’s maiden family will bring food items such as chicken, eggs and noodles to the house for the Cui Sheng process as a wish for the child to be born safely. If the pregnant woman’s mother has already passed on, this role can be taken on by her aunt as well. A feast will have to be set up to welcome the family for this ritual.
Childbirth is the process where the baby is being delivered. The most important ritual during the delivery process can be seen as the handling of the child’s placenta. Different dialect groups have certain differences in the way that they handle the placenta.
According to Hainanese traditions, they will hang longan, lychee and pandanus leaves on their door during the delivery process to prevent outsiders from entering. The delivery is usually assisted by an experienced midwife. After delivery, a red string would be tied around the baby’s navel while the placenta would be wrapped in tree leaves and hung on a tree, washed away by the river or buried in the ground so as to prevent wild animals from eating it. The wife is not allowed to leave the house for three days after giving birth. Sargent glory vine leaves will be hung on the entrance if the baby is male, and Lu Dou leaves if the baby is female. Both leaves have thorns that symbolise the warding off of evil spirits. The family will place a bowl of wine and a bowl of rice on the altar to inform their ancestors of the new birth for the ancestors to bless the baby with good fortune.
The Hakkas also have the practice of burying the placenta using a piece of paper. The placenta must not be misplaced, as this would represent bad fortune to the family. This stems from the idea that delivery is a “dirty” process. However, the difference is the location where the placenta is kept. The place of burial should be inside or beside the house, usually underneath the waste bucket or water tub so that animals cannot get to it. After delivery, the mother must bathe in water that has been boiled beforehand. After giving birth, neighbours and friends visit the household with good wishes and presents like red eggs, red packets or baby clothes. To reciprocate, the couple will prepare ginger wine and red eggs for the guests.
For the Cantonese, the placenta is called the “foetal clothing”, the handling of placentas is a ritual conducted with much discretion. The Cantonese usually bury the “foetal clothing” around the ancestors’ tomb. Only the grandmother of the family would know of the exact location of the placenta, and she would keep it as a secret.
Some taboos that pregnant women avoid during their pregnancy are unique to a specific dialect group. For instance, Hakka societies see women as labourers as well. Therefore, ensuring that pregnant women avoid doing anything laborious is not as important for the Hakkas as compared to the other dialect groups. However, a lot of these superstitions and taboos are universal across all dialect groups. After all, the existence of these taboos stem from the wish to look after the physical and mental wellbeing of the pregnant woman and her unborn baby. Hence, it is to be expected that there are certain similarities and overlaps in the pregnancy taboos across all dialect groups.
Postpartum Confinement Rituals
Postpartum confinement refers to the traditional practice of allowing one’s body to recuperate and recover from childbirth. The duration of the confinement is usually around a month. Nowadays, the wives only need to spend a couple of days recuperating in the hospital before they can be discharged, and families will usually have everything required for confinement prepared at home by then. There are several restrictions when it comes to postpartum confinement. The mothers are not allowed to be exposed to wind and cold water. They are also not allowed to wash their hair, engage in laborious activities, and are to use cooked water when showering. In terms of dietary restrictions, they are not allowed to drink uncooked water, and their cutleries must always be washed with water first. Their actual diet depends on each region’s cultural background. While most places have the tradition of ensuring the mothers eat plenty of heaty food, some areas have the tradition of a diet consisting of more cooling foods.
According to Hainanese traditions, couples are not allowed to share the same bed during confinement. The wives are also not allowed to sit on stools or chairs sat on by men. After the confinement is complete, the family will cook chicken and cooked mugwort leaves for the wife. They will have to cleanse their bodies with water cooked with longan tree leaves before they can come into contact with males and go outdoors.
According to Cantonese traditions, when the baby is born, the friends and relatives would normally come by to make a visit. They would bring along gifts like chicken, eggs and sweets. The family would then make “chicken soup” from chicken, ginger and wine for the guests, and gift a bottle of aged wine and half a chicken as reciprocating gifts for the guests.
After the birth of the child, the wife would bring the child back to her maternal side of the family. The maternal grandmother and grandfather will gift the new-born child eggs and red packets. The two red packets will be tied to each end of a flower sash that can be up to a few metres in length. No unnecessary laborious activities should be done by the mother for the next 40 to 50 days as she is required to rest and recuperate. During confinement, she would nourish herself with chicken soup as the main source of nourishment. They need to drinking an amount equivalent to that made from approximately 20 chickens.
For the Teochews, a series of measures must be taken either seven, twelve or thirty days after the childbirth. This recuperation period is known as La (腊). The new mother is expected to wear a head scarf and thicker clothing, avoid laborious work, avoid bathing, avoid showing her face in public, eat fish and chicken, as well as drinking ginger wine regularly. To ensure that the new-born gets to rest undisturbed, the house should be as quiet as possible, and the family should avoid noisy activities such as any construction work or the shifting of furniture. If both the mother and child are safe and sound after the month of confinement, it is known as Guo La (过腊).
“Full Month” Celebration
The first month of a new-born’s life is known as “Full Month” (满月), which calls for a Full Month Celebration. The most common way of celebrating this occasion is to hold a banquet and invite friends and relatives over to celebrate. At this celebration called the “Full Month Banquet”, elders will bring gifts for the baby as blessings. Grandparents from the maternal side of the family will bring over a rooster, eggs, along with clothes and various accessories for the child. Other Full Month traditions include trimming the baby’s hair and distributing red eggs as a celebratory gesture.
Before celebrating the baby’s first month of birth, the family has to name the child, give the child a haircut and visit the child’s grandparents. The child’s haircut also follows a certain custom, where the hairdresser will cut the child’s hair with a spring onion in hand and plant the spring onion in the garden thereafter. This is believed to make the child bright and intelligent. The child’s maternal family will prepare apparel for the child from head to toe, as well as a congratulatory gift consisting of eggs, wine.
First Birthday Celebration
This tradition is the end of birth traditions and the start of ageing traditions. It is highly important as it is the first birthday of the new-born, and often a larger-scaled event compared to the Full Month Celebration. Families that are more particular will palm sized red tortoise glutinous rice cake for the baby to step on. This symbolises longevity, as reflected by the tortoise, and the ability to walk independently. Additionally, some people will rub puffed rice on the baby’s mouth saying, “away with the foul mouth, let his mouth be pleasant”. This is done in hopes that the child will always be kind with their words and have the fortune of enjoying delicacies. Some families will also perform a ritual called the “Birthday Grab” ritual, where the child will grab an item from the many items placed in front of them. The item that the child picks – ranging from stationery, toys, food, sports equipment – will be an indication of the child’s personality, interest and fortune.
When are birthdays celebrated?
The celebration of birthdays is traditionally a gesture of respect from the younger generation to their elders. Traditionally, the celebration of birthdays was something reserved for the elderly people, but birthday celebrations has evidently taken on a more modern definition since then, and no longer has an age restriction in today’s society. When birthdays are supposed to be celebrated differ according to different dialect groups.
After 60 years of age, an individual can hold a celebration every ten years. In Zhangzhou, the males can hold a celebration on their birthday every year after the age of 51. In addition, married males can also hold a celebration for their birthday after 31 years of age. Longevity is classified into three categories, lower, middle and upper represented by 60, 80 and 100 years old respectively. On the other hand, according to Hainanese customs, birthdays can be celebrated for those aged 61 and above.
The Cantonese and the Hakkas usually only celebrate birthdays for those aged 60 and above, and are seen as “big birthdays”. For males, birthdays are celebrated by the interval of decades, starting from 60, followed by 70, 80 and so on. On the other hand, females also celebrate “big birthdays” once every ten years, but the starting age is 61 instead of 60. The Hakkas also have the practice of celebrating their 100th birthday when they are 96 years old, as they would actually be 100 years old by then, according to the lunar calendar.
Longevity noodles are white and lightly flavoured. When cooking the noodles, it is important not to break the noodles because the long strands are intended to signify a “long life”. An Emperor of the Han Dynasty, Han Wu Di, used to joke that the length of one’s life is related to one’s philtrum (the small area between the nose and the mouth). However, over the years, people actually started to believe the notion that if one’s philtrum and face is long, they would definitely live a long life. Since the Chinese pronunciation of “Face” and “Noodle” is similar, the people ate noodles in hopes of lengthening their life.
People gifted longevity peaches as a symbolism of longevity and dying the peaches red added an auspicious meaning to it. People would then add sweet fillings into the peaches to signify everlasting sweetness and happiness.
Friends and family members often gift birthday couplets with auspicious greetings to wish for good health and longevity.
For the Hokkiens, the whole family will gather together to eat longevity noodles together on the eve of the birthday date. This is known as Nuan Shou (暖寿), which is also known as the celebration on the eve of one’s birthday. On the actual day, longevity noodles, longevity eggs and large red candles, longevity couplets, and a portrait of the “God of longevity” will be placed in the living room. After that, people will burn joss sticks to worship the deities and their ancestors and light firecrackers.
For the Hainanese, on the day of the celebration, relatives will gift items such as longevity peaches and noodles, along with meat and alcohol. Items such as longevity couplets are often included as well. The person celebrating their birthday is required to be properly dressed and seated in the middle of the house. Someone from at least a generation below the person celebrating their birthday will make a bowl of longevity noodles and respectfully feed a mouthful to them. Following that, the family of the birthday boy/girl will kneel down and pay respect to their family member while saying auspicious words. The order will be according to age, from the oldest family member to the youngest, followed by unmarried members of the family, and finally close friends of the person celebrating their birthday, who will give each of them some money in return. After the celebration is complete, everyone will gather for a toast.
Birthday Prayer Traditions
People believe that praying to the deities will help to lengthen life span even though it has been decided by the Gods. People also believed that one’s lifespan can be put up for loan like an object. Hence, children with extremely sick parents would pray to the deities after a change of clothes (representing cleansing) to loan their lifespan to their sick parents as a symbol of filial piety.
Surmounting “Life Checkpoints”
It is believed that ages 55, 66, 73, 84 are various checkpoints in life, where the King of Hell, Yama, would seek to take life away. These “life checkpoints” also included any ages with the number “9 or are multiples of 9. In order to overcome these life checkpoints, people performed rituals to avert calamity, for example writing a prayer for fortune and extended life, which will be burned together with a candlewick.
Celebrate “9” and not “10”
As the Chinese proverb goes, “ten signifies fullness and fullness is the beginning of loss”. Therefore, people have the practice of celebrating another decade older on the ninth year of the full decade of age (called “nominal age”), signifying that life has not come to an end (is not complete, as compared to when it is celebrated on the full tenth year). Additionally, the Chinese pronunciation of “nine” is similar to the Chinese pronunciation of “long”, hence celebrating on the 9th year has the meaning of longevity.
Shou Ban (寿板)
In Quanzhou, there is a tradition known as Ying Ban (迎板), where families will buy coffins to place in their homes when holding a birthday feast. The coffin in the house is called the Shou Ban (寿板)， which translates to the “Age Board”. It is believed that when the errant ghost or deity officer comes by and sees the coffin, they would leave instead of checking and take life away because the coffin leads them to think that someone has passed on. This way, the people could live a few more years. However, since the coffin is an extremely inauspicious object, this ritual must be carried out with prudence.
Traditional Wedding Rituals
After being introduced by a matchmaker, the man will choose a date to visit the woman’s home — a practice called “stealing a peek”. Upon meeting each other, the man will give the lady a red packet. If both are interested, the lady will accept the snacks brought by the man. If not, she will reject his gifts and thank him. If the man is not interested, he will leave without having lunch.
Nowadays, it will usually be the responsibility of the man to fix a date and time to meet up with the woman. Parents and siblings of both families may also be present. In recent times, blind dates have witnessed a return to popularity, with matchmaking agencies arranging for both parties to meet up for a meal, creating opportunities for young adults with busy schedules to meet and interact. Premarital counselling is also highly recommended as it is deemed useful in allowing both parties to gain a better understanding of each other’s expectations regarding marriage life, which will prove useful in adjusting to life after marriage.
According to traditional Chinese customs, a marriage proposal involves the man visiting the woman’s having as he asks her parents for permission to marry her. The selection of the date for the marriage proposal is largely up to the discretion of the couple. With the help of a matchmaker, some couples will decide the date based on their bazi, which refers to the calendar date of their dates of birth. Some will take the bazi of their respective parents into consideration as well. The groom and his parents will visit the bride and her family to issue the marriage proposal. The groom will usually bring along gifts such as wine and fruits for the visit.
Betrothal is a formality performed by the groom to bind both families of the couple together as he initiates his proposal for marriage. This is usually done two to three weeks before the actual wedding. Besides the dowry, other gifts from the groom to the bride’s family will include gold jewellery and various food items. On the day of betrothal, the groom, accompanied by a matchmaker or a senior relative, will bring the gifts over to the bride’s family in a traditional tiered wedding basket. The bride’s family will return a portion of the dowry money and food items as a gesture of goodwill to share the auspicious spirit among both families, and to signify the establishment of a bond between both sides as well.
A dowry refers to items prepared by the bride’s family for the newlywed couple which represent their best blessings for them. Items in a dowry usually consist of a sewing kit and a baby prosperity set, which symbolises the good virtues of the bride and that she is ready to take on the responsibilities as a married woman. A tea seat and bowl set will be gifted to the newlyweds to be used at the groom’s house on the day of the wedding. After the wedding, the couple will keep these items as a symbol of filial piety and abundance.
In the past, newlywed couples must wear wooden clogs on the night before the wedding as it represents continued progress in life. Nowadays the wooden clogs come in miniature form, and are commonly used for decorative purposes as they symbolise festivity. Couples will also wear bedroom slippers instead, which symbolise prosperity. For other items included in the dowry, towels represent growing old together, while a pair of lamps are included to represent the continuation of the line of descendants. All these items will have to be sent to the groom’s home beforehand, and then displayed inside the newlywed couple’s bedroom on the day of the wedding.
The dowry will also include a new set of bed sheets to be used during bed-setting. Decorating the bedroom of the newlywed couple nicely to welcome them acts as a blessing for them to lead a comfortable, loving and long-lasting marriage.
Candles are a staple during betrothals. However, the type of candles used and the relevant practices adopted by different dialect groups vary slightly. For instance, the Hokkiens and Teochews use candles with Double Dragons and Phoenixes without stands. On the other hand, the Cantonese and Hakkas use Dragon and Phoenix candles with stands, and the Hainanese people use Dragon and Phoenix candles without stands. According to Hokkien traditions, the groom will bring the candles to the bride’s house during betrothal. The parents of the bride will accept the Dragon candle to represent the acceptance of the groom into their family. They will also return the Phoenix candle as a sign that they have agreed to allow their daughter to become a new member of the groom’s family. Both sides will light up the candles on the day of the wedding. For the Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese people, the groom will bring two sets of Dragon and Phoenix candles to the bride’s home. The bride’s family will accept one pair of candles, while the groom will take home the other pair. While the candles are supposed to be lit on the same day, according to the Teochew culture, the candle has to be extinguished after half of it has finished burning off. The other half can only be burned off after the newlywed couple’s first child celebrates their first birthday. The candle flame cannot be extinguished by blowing, and must be done so using fruits, such as an apple, instead.
Different dialect groups have different practices when it comes to the gifting of jewellery during the betrothal ceremony. For the Hokkiens, the jewellery will normally comprise two gold bangles, while the Cantonese and the Hakkas will have Dragon Phoenix bangles. Si Dian Jin (四点金), which translates to “four touches of gold”, is a traditional custom that is more exclusive to the Teochews. It refers to the four pieces of jewellery, consisting of a gold necklace, a gold bangle, a pair of gold earrings and a gold ring, presented to the bride as a betrothal gift by the groom’s mother. In comparison, the Hainanese are generally not as particular about gold and jewellery. The Teochews also have the practice of adding a piece of wax to the tray containing the dowry. Wax was traditionally used by women to moisturise, and the gifting of a piece of wax from the groom’s parents to the bride symbolises that they will dote on her and take care of her after she enters the family.
Certain food items included during the betrothal are identical across various dialect groups, but each dialect group has its unique food items as well. Traditional Chinese weddings will usually have auspicious wedding grains such as red dates, lily bulbs, lotus seeds, dried longan, rock sugar and candied melon strips included during the betrothal. For the Hokkiens, they will also have Hokkien Mi Lao biscuits and Ma Lao biscuits, traditional peanut sugees and canned pork legs. The Teochews will include Teochew sesame candies and peanut candies, while the Cantonese and Hakkas will include Dragon and Phoenix biscuits, green bean biscuits, red bean biscuits, lotus paste biscuits, wife biscuits and walnut biscuits. Hokkien, Teochew and Hainan people will usually ensure that canned pork legs are included, while the Cantonese and Hakka people usually replace it with seafood. Both food items are used to symbolise the wealth of the groom’s family.
Bed-setting is an essential tradition in Chinese weddings. An auspicious day will be chosen for this ritual, while couples who choose to do it on the night before (around 11pm on the eve of the wedding) are also common. In the past, an elderly couple in a loving marriage with children will be invited by the newlyweds to do the bed-setting. However, in recent years, the groom’s parents are seen as the perfect candidate of elderly couples living a “good life”, seeing as their child is set to get married and form his own family. Hence, the groom’s parents will usually be the one doing the bed-setting, wishing the newly-weds an everlasting marriage, good health, and a happy family blessed with healthy children.
Traditionally, new bridal bedsheets with embroidered dragon and phoenix motifs will be used. However, in the modern times, some parents also get to gift couple bedsheets with cute designs to the newlyweds. A bed-setting plate containing a variety of food items including the Auspicious Wedding Grains, peanuts, dried longan and red beans will be placed on the bed, making the bed “overflowing” with blessings. The bed will be left untouched until the day of the wedding, when the couple comes home for the tea ceremony. Before this, a boy will be asked to roll around on the bed as a symbol of fertility and conceiving a boy.
Tradition of Crying Before Marriage
Some dialect groups follow unique traditions such as the ritual of the bride crying on the day before the marriage. Doing so symbolises an expression of gratitude towards the bride’s parents for taking care of her till her day of marriage. It also symbolises the sense of longing from the bride towards her family and siblings. The reason for crying also includes marriage symbolising the parents “kicking” their daughter out of the house, which symbolises a sorrowful affair. Some also regard this tradition as an expression of concern over the future lives of the married couple.
Hair Combing Ceremony
On the night before the wedding, both the bride and groom will have to go through the hair combing ceremony at home. In the past, the eldest relative in the groom’s family had to comb the groom’s hair. However, in the modern day, this will usually be done by the groom’s grandaunt, auntie or father. As for the bride, the bridesmaid in charge of wedding traditions will perform the ceremony. For the Hair Combing Ceremony, the comb used has to be a semi-circle with cypress (symbolising lasting marriage filled with vitality), and must have red ribbons tied onto it. A red packet should also be tied to the end of the comb. The elder or bridesmaid will have to recite auspicious sayings with each stroke of the comb, such as “the first stroke represents a good life; the second stroke represents blissful marriage till old age; the third stroke represents fertility”. During the ceremony, the newlyweds will have to hold up a mirror and a ruler. The former symbolises the need to reflect on one’s words and actions, while the latter represents the need to always remain measured and respectful. After completing the combing ceremony, the elder has to tie the red ribbon on the groom’s hair and the bridesmaid has to tie the cypress on the bride’s hair. The ribbon and cypress are to be left untouched until the end of the wedding on the next day. When the ceremony is over, the bride and groom will have to drink a sweet dessert made with lotus seeds, lily, peanuts, red beans and eggs.
In the past, wedding banquets were held in the afternoon. The groom will invite friends and family of both of the newlyweds to his house. The couple will practice the tradition of “cross-cupped wine, which is the formal exchange of cups of wine between the bride and the groom symbolising the confirmation of the wedding. During the wedding banquet, any tableware and cutleries cannot be broken, and plates should not be stacked together. The bridesmaid will lead the bride to serve tea. When serving tea, the bride must kneel before her elders and the latter have to drink two cups of tea. After doing so, they have to give the bride a word of blessing and a red packet. Nowadays, although banquets are usually held in hotels or restaurants today, serving tea is still a vital part of weddings. Unmarried relatives from the later generation will offer tea to the couple, who will give them red packets in return.
Entering the Groom’s House
After boarding the sedan, a married male relative from the groom’s family will lead the way to the groom’s house. When the sedan reaches the groom’s house, firecrackers will be lit in front of the door and a small fire will be made using straw and a bridesmaid will lead her off the sedan to step over a small fire pit at the door. The act of stepping over the fire pit is believed to dispel the bad aura from the past. After stepping over the fire pit, the bride will pay respects to the groom’s ancestors by pouring a cup of wine and tea on the floor, followed by a deep bow and lighting an incense stick.
Before leaving the bride’s maiden home for the groom’s house, the couple must serve tea to the elders in the bride’s family. When the couple reach the groom’s house, they also have to serve tea to the groom’s paternal side of the family first, according to seniority, before serving tea to his mother and maternal relatives. In the process of serving tea, the bridesmaid in charge of wedding traditions will hold the tea tray, which carries two teacups, and hand the teacups to the bride.
The newlyweds cannot allow their feet to touch the ground from 11pm on the night before the wedding to 11pm on the day of the wedding. Hence, they cannot take off their shoes during the tea ceremony. They can use a cushion when they kneel down to serve the tea or do so standing up as well.
Funeral Customs and Traditions
Songzhong (送终) refers to the final farewell being given to the deceased. Taking care of the elderly and ensuring that they have a proper send-off upon their passing is an undeniable responsibility for the younger generation towards their elders. One’s children and grandchildren should be by their side at all times in their final moments. Even if their children are overseas, they should do their best to return home to attend to their dying parent as a display of filial piety. If the dying family member is a female, their children must notify her maternal side of the family immediately, so as to avoid causing any unhappiness or disputes. It is a common belief that an old person who gets to spend their final moments with all their children and grandchildren by the bed is one who is fortunate and “was blessed with a good life”. However, there are some differences in customs in certain parts of Fujian, with children not prohibited from being with their parent during their final days. Instead, they must avoid meeting them during the time period that their parent predicts they might pass away. Otherwise, it is believed that this will bring misfortune to the living.
Banpu (搬铺) refers to the moving arrangement of the body before one’s passing. Ancient Chinese customs are extremely particular about the location of events involving life and death. Fujian has a long-standing emphasis on ensuring that one “dies in a proper room” (the value of “寿终正寝”, which translates to “life ending in a correct bedroom”). It is believed that the main hall of the house is the most sacred. Hence, during the final hours of a dying person’s life, they must be moved from a room that is situated towards the side of the house, to the main room (main hall). After moving, the person’s children will stay by their side at all times, not making any noises and trying their best not to cry in front of the dying person. This custom remains popular today in rural areas, which is why some elderly people refuse to be hospitalised to receive medical treatment despite being heavily ill, for fear that they will not be able to “die in a proper room”.
Baosang (报丧) means the announcement of one’s death. This is to inform family and friends of the deceased about their passing, as well as those whose predicament clashes with that of the deceased (e.g. pregnant women), warning them to stay away. The announcement of one’s death is a practice that is taken very seriously.
How this ritual is carried out varies according to different dialect groups. For instance, the Hokkiens have three ways of announcing one’s death. Firstly, by setting off firecrackers on the day of the deceased’s death (or the next day) while putting up an obituary notice on the door of the family of the deceased. Secondly, by having fellow clansmen put up obituary notices and having them inform the family and friends of the deceased. Lastly, having the son of the deceased personally notify the family and friends of the deceased about their death.
On the other hand, for the Cantonese and the Hakkas, the son of the deceased is the one responsible for announcing the unfortunate news to the relatives of the paternal side of the family. When delivering the news, the son of the deceased is required to wear a mourning dress and straw sandals. When meeting his relatives, he should remain sorrowful as he shares the deceased’s time of death, cause of death and date of funeral procession. Once he has shared the necessary information, he is expected to leave immediately without any delay.
Xiaolian (小殓) refers to the process of clothing the body of the deceased. The family members of the deceased will cleanse the body and dressed it with clothes known as shouyi (寿衣). “寿”, which stands for life and longevity, is culturally intertwined with death. According to the customs of Zhangzhou, the deceased will wear their shouyi on the second day of their death. The number of layers that the deceased will wear differs according to their identity and the county that they are in. However, the usual custom is seven layers of top and five layers of pants, with even numbers seen as a taboo. However, places such as Liancheng do not have such prohibitions regarding even numbers. Also, the older the age of the deceased and the more generations of children and grandchildren they have, the more layers of clothes they will wear. During this process, children of the deceased are expected to be present, and they have to cry out while they dress the deceased, shouting out the number of layers as the deceased is being dressed. Buttons are not used for shouyi, with a dead knot tied with cloth used instead. In places such as Fuzhou, the process of Xiaolian must be done while the person is still breathing. If the body is not cleansed and dressed before the deceased took their last breath, it is akin to “dying naked”, which will bring guilt and regret to the family of the deceased.
After the body of the deceased has been cleansed and dressed, an altar will be set up. The children of the deceased will be by the side of the body as a show of filial piety. This is known as Shouling (守灵), which translates to “guarding of the spirit”. There will be items such as an incense case, fruits and candles placed on the altar. During the Qing Dynasty, males will not cut their hair, females will not comb their hair, and everyone will only eat porridge and vegetarian food as a show of mourning. In more recent times, a bed will normally be set up beside the altar, or the floor will be padded with some haystacks by the mourner. Nowadays, it is common for children of the deceased to take turns to sit beside the body of the deceased. The responsibilities of guarding the altar include ensuring that the lamp placed near the feet of the deceased continues to shine light and preventing cats and rats from getting near to the body.
Setting up an Altar (设立灵室)
A portrait of the deceased will be placed in the centre of the altar. Items such as clothes, shoes, hats and money made out of paper will be placed in the altar. Every family member will have to show their filial piety. Males will wear white clothes with jackets and hats made out of thick linen. Holding a mourning cane made out of white paper paste, grandsons will also wear white along with a mourning jacket and hat. Great-grandsons will hold lotus flowers in their hands, wear blue inner wear and hats. Great-great grandsons will be completely dressed in blue. Daughters-in-law and granddaughters-in-law will wear straw sandals and belts. Cousins, aunties of the deceased will be dressed in plain white mourning clothes when attending the funeral. The deceased’s family clan members, family, friends and neighbours will all buy candles to express their condolences or take the initiative to offer some money to cover the funeral expenses.
Dalian (大殓) refers to the coffining of the body, and this ritual is normally held on the third day after the death of the deceased. Some other places determine when to commence this ritual according to the season. Before the body is coffined, a farewell ritual must be held, with the specific details of the ritual differing according to the cultures of different places. The coffin is most likely prepared beforehand. Normally, people who are 50 years old and above will have the right to prepare their coffin beforehand. The coffin will normally contain some burial goods such as handkerchiefs, combs, jade objects, and figurines of Jintong (Golden Boy) and Yunü (Jade Maiden) made out of paper paste.
Diaoyan (吊唁) refers to the expression of condolences to the deceased, with “吊” representing the sending of condolences to the deceased and “唁” representing the consoling of the family of the deceased. The custom of Diaoyan remains widely popular in Fujian since ancient times till present day. The person expressing condolences will normally gift items such as wreaths with couplets written on them, candles, bed sheets, cloths and blankets. The family of the deceased will hang these items around the altar. The expression of condolences must be done before the body is buried as gifting items after the burial is strictly prohibited. It is believed that doing so will lead to the death of another person, hence it is regarded as a severe taboo.
Chubin (出殡) refers to the funeral procession for the deceased. While the procedures and rituals involved in a funeral procession are similar across all dialect groups, there are also certain unique practices unique to each specific dialect group.
Hokkien culture places great emphasis on grand burials, with the belief that a proper funeral not only honours the dead, but brings pride for the living as well. There are many places in Fujian that has the custom of Luji (路祭), which refers to family members or those who had received benefits from the deceased showing their gratitude towards the deceased by placing sacrificial offerings on the route of the funeral procession. During the funeral procession, the coffin cannot be placed on the ground. If the pallbearers need to rest or are involved with Luji, they can only rest the coffin on two benches. It is taboo for the pallbearers to comment that the coffin is heavy, as it is believed that the coffin will become even heavier as a result. In the event that the funeral procession team walks the wrong way, they are not allowed to turn back, with walking repeated paths being seen as a taboo as well. They will have to make a detour instead.
For the Cantonese, before the funeral procession, the family will usually hire a Taoist priest to perform exorcism to help the soul of the deceased enter the supernatural. Some wealthier families will be more particular about the Taoist processes, having the Taoist priest to chant and go vegetarian for one to three days. The maternal family of the deceased will have to give consolation and the main family members of the deceased have to wear mourning clothes and kneel at the door to welcome guests. Extended family members will have to pat the backs of the mourning family members (as an act of condolence) before the latter can rise again. Funeral processions are usually loud, and the Taoist priest will blow sad noises with a horn. The funeral procession is called “returning to the mountain”. When the coffin is carried to the burial ground, mourning family members will wear their mourning attire and wail as they walk. During the journey, firecrackers will be lit and joss paper (symbolizing “capital to the nether world”) will be thrown. The remaining people sending off the deceased will wear a white cloth over their left shoulders (for males) or tied around their foreheads (for females). They only need to walk half the journey, but the mourning family members have to send the deceased till the burial ground and return only after the deceased is buried. After that, all families who participated in the planning of the funeral will head to the host family’s house for a vegetarian meal.
For the Teochews, the funeral procession will take place on the third or seventh day after the passing of the deceased, while there are also people who commence this process on the day of the passing itself. On the day of the funeral procession, a piece of silk cloth with a dragon or phoenix woven onto it will be lain over the coffin. Eight strong young men would be split into two groups to take turns to carry the coffin to the cemetery. The village leader would set off firecrackers and scatter joss money at the front of the coffin. This is followed by couplets and silk cloths (for loved ones to pen down their well wishes), and then the deceased’s family members, where males are to stand on the left and females on the right. In some cases, friends of the deceased and a musical band would tag along as well. After the coffin has been placed into the grave, everyone who had attended the funeral would have to wash their hands and faces with water containing safflower before returning home.
According to Hainanese culture, during the funeral procession, the eldest grandchildren of the deceased will walk at the front, holding a bamboo banner. The banner will include the date of birth and date of death, with the intention of guiding the spirit up to the heavens. There will also be money made of paper attached to the bamboo banners and positioned along the route, signifying the “crossing of the bridge”. The son-in-law of the family will show his filial piety, assisting with the Fulin (扶灵) process. This refers to close family members of the deceased carrying the coffin, signifying the deceased’s final journey. Traditionally, females are regarded to have greater Yin energy, males are normally tasked with the Fulin responsibility. During Chubin, the clothes, straw hat, knife basket, bow and arrow (sewing kit for women) of the deceased will be placed beside the village or near the cemetery. Regions that have deeper Han influences will require Taoist priests to host the funeral procession.
The burial procedure, known as Xiatu (下土), is the process of placing the casket into the tomb. In recent years, the custom of spending huge amounts of money on tombs has regained its popularity. While there are still some people living in the city who choose to cremate, there are still people in rural areas who purchase land to build their graves. During the burial, it is considered taboo to make noises, and even more so to shout out names of the living and cast one’s shadow onto the tomb.
Hui Long refers to the funeral procession team’s journey back to the home of the deceased. According to the customs of many places, a change of attire is required for this process. In Fuzhou, the son will carry a lantern while the daughter-in-law will be clad in a black top and a red skirt. Other males will wear red belts, while the other females will wear red flowers on their clothes. The common practice nowadays is for the males to remove the white belt worn around their waists during the funeral and replace it with a red one, while the females will wear a flower on their head. According to the customs of places such as Fu’an and Xiapu, the family members will change into auspicious clothing during this process.
Tanmu (探墓) refers to the visiting of the tomb. Children of the deceased will prepare sacrificial items and visit the new grave to mourn three days after the day of the burial (according to the customs of other places, some visit two days or seven days instead). The custom of tomb sweeping is prevalent across different places in Fujian. Families of the deceased will visit the tomb for tomb sweeping during Qingming Festival or Lixia. Some places tomb sweeping is done before and after the Double Ninth Festival and Winter Solstice.
Starting from the day of the deceased’s passing, a ritual will have to be conducted every seven days, with seven rituals expected to be held within the first 49 days of the deceased’s death. This process is known as Zuoqi (做七). The practices for Zuoqi differ according to different places. Some customs place more emphasis on the first, third, fifth and seventh “seventh day”, ensuring that the rituals are grander as compared to the simpler rituals for the other “seventh days”, while some families only conduct rituals for the first and seventh “seventh day.” The first seventh day, also known as Touqi (头七), which translates to “first seventh”, is believed to be the day when the deceased finally realises their own death, hence their spirit will return home to visit their children and grandchildren. Therefore, the family of the deceased will start mourning after midnight. A monk will be invited to chant for the deceased as superstitious items such as joss paper and paper model of houses will be burnt. In recent years, models of modern electronic home appliances and transportation such as televisions, refrigerators, cars and planes made of five-colour paper paste are being burnt as well. The ritual for Qiqi (七七), which refers to the seventh and final “seventh day” of the Zuoqi ritual, is largely similar to Touqi, with the difference being that families will change from their mourning attire to auspicious clothing. Females will tie linen to their hair, while males will attach a piece of crape on their clothes as a sign of mourning.
Filial Mourning (服丧守孝)
According to ancient customs, filial piety is a responsibility that everyone has regardless of their social status. Ancient society believed that “life after death should be the same as that of the living”, and children must continue to display their filial piety after the death of their parents. The period of filial mourning varies according to the degree of kinship between the individual and the deceased. The children of the deceased will have to participate in filial mourning for the longest period of time, which is three years. Feudal societies have even established fixed customs regarding filial mourning. During this period, drinking alcohol, eating meat, singing and dancing, marrying, engaging in intimate activities and visiting friends are all prohibited. They will be allowed to ignore wedding invitations from family and friends. During the first three days of filial mourning, the mourner is not allowed to eat or drink, and will only be allowed to eat porridge for within the first week. The mourning will conclude after three years, and they will be allowed to live their normal lives again. Some of these practices are more strictly adhered to by scholar-officials, and not as much so for members of the public.
Second Burial (第二葬)
While funeral rituals are largely universal across the various dialect groups, there are also certain practices that are unique to specific dialect groups. For instance, the Hakkas follow the ritual of a second burial. Ten years after the first burial, the grave will be dug open, and the remains of the deceased will be exposed to charcoal fire for cremation. The cremated remains are then transferred into a porcelain urn, which is then buried again. The Hakkas believe that this symbolises the true and permanent burial process.