Last month I attended a wedding not just as a guest, but as a celebrant. It was an outdoor ceremony with the Malaysian rainforest providing a stunning backdrop.
I am not authorised by any civic or religious powers to solemnise a wedding – the couple had married a few days before and this ceremony was symbolic – but I was honoured to be asked. It was my first time and I was probably more nervous than the couple, but it went beautifully.
These days, few Chinese weddings, either in or outside China, feature what used to be the most important ritual, the baitang ceremony, which announced to the world that man and woman had become husband and wife. Certain peripheral rites are still observed by some couples, but the baitang ceremony, common since the Song dynasty (960-1279), has been mostly replaced by civic procedures or Western rituals.
There were variations, but the baitang usually required couples to stand before an altar for deities and ancestors and follow the celebrant’s instructions to bow to the heavens and the earth, bow to the groom’s parents and bow to each other, before proceeding to the nuptial chamber. After completing baitang, the couple were officially married.
Anthropologists could probably explain better than I can why the Chinese have abandoned this key wedding ritual, without any replacement based on their own traditions.