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First Step of Engagement in Ancient China

To learn Mandarin in China, many students are curious about Chinese culture. Today, we will introduce one important part of Chinese culture – Chinese engagement. The first step of engagement in ancient Chinese marriage – comparing vital information of a prospective couple:

1. Offering gifts ad proposing a marriage
The pre-wedding period began with a discussion of the possibility of a match, which was initiated by the matchmaker. Traditionally, the discussions of a marriage began with a proposal by the matchmaker from the bridegroom’s side, which was carried out by giving gifts through the matchmaker. Before the Qin Dynasty (the 3rd century BC), people would offer goose as gift. Some people regarded wile geese as a punctual and honest bird because they migrate at regular times. A qualified wife should have the same qualities. Others said that wild geese marry only once throughout their lives and don’t separate afterwards, which makes them a symbol of good wished for a lasting marriage. Since the Qin and Han Dynasties (the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century) the gifts given to the girl’s family changed greatly, while remaining inexpensive. For example, lily implied good wishes for a lasting marriage, and “如意rú yì” (an S-shaped ornamental object) symbolized good luck. (Chinese people also use it as an adjective means something goes on smooth and makes people satisfied.) Sometimes people used domestic ducks or geese in place of a wild goose. If the girl’s family was satisfied with what the matchmaker relayed to them, they would accept the gift. Otherwise, they would politely reject it.

2. Studying names and birth dates
After the bride’s family accepted the gift, the matchmaker would report the good news to the bridegroom’s family. Then they bridegroom’s family would present another gift to the bride’s family for more details, including the parents’ family names, the bride’s name, whether she was older or younger than her sisters and brothers and the exact time of her birth. From the 10th century, detailed information of both sides was usually written on a piece of paper, called the “date note”. It was taboo to write the information on white paper. Red was the best choice. Single characters had to be avoided and people would put in a modifying character to make the total number of characters even. For example, they added “jiàn” (healthy and strong) after the male name and “ruì” (genial) after the female name. This procedure was conducted secretly since each side was afraid of losing face or bringing harm to the man or woman concerned if the other side turned down the offer. For their own benefit, the matchmakers would naturally keep the secret. If they ever leaked the information, they would be regarded as unreliable and thus ruin their own career as matchmakers.

After the couple had obtained each other’s details, the period called “comparing notes” began. The comparison is usually focused on social relations, age and birth sign.

A. No marriage among close relatives
As for information about social relations, people with the same surname were not allowed to forge marriage alliance. This consideration could be dated back to the Zhou Dynasty (before the 3rd century BC) and was strictly followed for 3 reasons: for the benefit of next generation; to avoid unnecessary trouble of offending some natural rules; for the social implication of making a good new family unit out of two different families. There were other taboos related to the above tradition. For example, relatives within the same clan were supposed to avoid marriage alliance. Marriages between cousins were forbidden by the law throughout almost all dynasties in the Chinese history. The family history including the detailed information about the two families would be written on the “data note”, such as their hometowns, parents, grandparents, etc. in this wasy, it was easy for people who felt strongly about this taboo to decide whether or not to embark on the relationship.

B. Age Considerations
Social relationship taboos reflect people’s hopes for healthy offspring, while age taboos merely reflect their superstitious mentality. In some places, the age gap for a couple should not be three, six or nine years, which were considered inauspicious. In some other places, it was not acceptable for a wife to be one year older than her husband. A proverb said, “one year makes no wife.” Some people thought that a couple born in the same year or even the same month would suffer the inability to bear offspring.

The taboo on the time of birth was stricter than on the age gap. Fortune-tellers could predict one’s fate according to his exact birth time in the following way. They matched a person’s year, month, date and time of birth separately with four astrological areas and then calculated the eight characters. Each of the characters belongs to one of the Five Elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. The two parities involved in the marriage would take the detailed birth information about the perspective couple to fortune-teller to see whether they were in harmony. Good luck would follow if their birth information could match properly. Otherwise, the marriage would be ill-fated and bring harm to the couple as well as their families.

C. Chinese Zodiac Compatibility
In China, there are 12 animal zodiac signs representing different years (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig), so the compatibility of their birth years was also to be considered in a marriage. The taboos on compatibility of the Chinese zodiac signs were varied. In some places, a person born in the year of the rooster should not be married to a person born in the year of the dog, because the two animals were opposite in dispositions. Some believed that people born in the year of the snake should not marry to those born in the year of the dragon because both animals were aggressive. There were also other taboos. For example, it was traditionally avoided in China to make a match between one dragon and one tiger, two tigers, one horse and one ox, one pig and one monkey, one tiger and one rat. All of these are recorded in ballads from different places. However, nowadays, the young pay almost no attention to this kind of taboo, only in some countryside; some elderly people still follow this practice.

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