Grandma Han’s eyes narrowed as they rested on a set of dazzling diamonds at the annual China Wedding Expo near the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing. Stopping in her tracks, the 82-year-old with a slight humped back gazed at the jewels.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said, smiling. “It sure opened my eyes.”
Han’s granddaughter Li Na, 26, and future grandson-in-law Shi Yan, 26, held her hands and laughed with her. They were at the expo to prepare for their wedding scheduled for September 1. The couple met at university in South Korea and had dated for seven years. They moved back to China last year, both working for South Korean companies based in Beijing.
The groom said he had budgeted half a million yuan for their wedding – to pay for the rings, the dress and suit, and the venues for the ceremony and dinner.
But their budget goes well above the average for Chinese couples. Weddings in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai typically cost about 160,000 yuan (HK$200,000), according to surveys. The Ministry of Civil Affairs records more than 10 million wedding registrations annually.
Li’s grandmother thinks the cost of the couple’s wedding will be much more than anticipated. The bride’s father, who is a successful businessman, just bought them an imported car, costing more than 1 million yuan.
“I heard [the wedding] will cost more than 2 million yuan in total. Enough to feed 200 people for a year,” Han said.
At the expo, the bride had locked her eyes on a ring for her fiancé.
“It’s not up to me. She has to like it,” said Shi, shaking his head. He said he would not buy himself a ring that cost more than 10,000 yuan. He did, however, buy Li a diamond ring worth 30,000 yuan, to be delivered from South Africa.
“I’ll buy anything for her, as long as she likes it,” he said.
His bride nodded and said: “It is once in a lifetime. I’m going to buy what I think is the best for our special day.”
Drink to happiness
The ring doesn’t make up the biggest chunk of the wedding budget, either.
For centuries, Chinese families and friends have gathered for the wedding dinner – to toast the happy couple, or xi jiu. Nowadays, that wedding dinner is an expensive affair, costing from 2,000 yuan to more than 10,000 yuan per table. The traditional red envelopes of cash given to the newly-weds from guests can sometimes soften the blow somewhat.
Shi has ordered 30 tables, at 10,000 yuan each, for the meal. “I don’t have a choice,” he said. “My colleagues and friends have similar standards. I cannot be out of fashion.”
His thinking is not unusual among city folk.
“In big cities, people tend to show off and compare the scale of their weddings,” said Wang Guang, 50, director of the Heilongjiang Wedding Service Association. He added that in some places, the wedding dinner is a way for the couple to reap rewards, particularly if the red envelope money exceeds expenses.
Wang, who has been in the industry for a decade, said about 500 billion yuan of revenue is generated yearly by services and products related to weddings.
More than 60 per cent of Chinese couples choose a wedding ceremony with full meal services, according to research by Wang’s association.
Preserving the memories
A huge chunk of money also goes towards wedding photos and honeymoons.
“Most couples want to have photos to remember the most shining moment of their lives,” said Moca Ye, 24, a consultant at the August Photo Studio in Beijing. “It stays with us whenever we see them.”
About 2,000 couples took wedding photos this spring in the studio, he said. Most of them chose scenes of Europe – such as France’s Maisons-Laffitte – as their background. The package costs 6,999 yuan.
“If you are willing to pay a bit more, about 100,000 yuan, you can afford to take wedding photos in the deserts of Xinjiang or on the golden beach of China’s ‘Hawaii’ – Sanya,” he said.
Sophie Guo, a fashion designer in her 30s, is considering either taking wedding photos in Beijing’s Imperial Ancestral Temple or at her honeymoon destination, the Maldives, where she would also bring the August Photo Studio staff.
The first choice would cost her 58,000 yuan, the latter is double the price. She and her fiancé, a French manager, have dated long distance for 10 years.
“We do not expect marriage to be like stars, shining forever,” she said. “However, the wedding is one moment that can live forever in memories.”
'Family' and materialism
Dr Wu Xiaoying, director of family and gender studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, thinks marriages have become more materialistic.
“Marriage is one goal for people seeking to complete their lives – and buying goods are a part of it,” she said. “Houses, cars and diamonds are often mentioned. But they don’t mean everything. It’s normal that a couple combine their best resources and live together.”
She also said that the concept of family has changed, too. Families of three, DINKs (which stands for dual income, no kids), gay couples or even singles are all common today. “Compared with the past, modern Chinese increasingly factor in emotions, which was not the priority in the old days,” she said.
At the wedding expo, another bride, 22-year-old Li, carefully picked out a wedding dress, after trying on five. The A-line wedding dress has lace edging and a beige ribbon around the waist. Unlike most people who choose to rent wedding gowns, Li purchased her own for 2,600 yuan.
“I don’t want to wear a wedding gown used by others for my most magnificent moment,” she said. “But it does not have to be very expensive. It only matters if it fits me and makes me shine.”
She and her fiancé studied international trade at a college in Beijing and dated for two years. They decided to get married right after graduation while looking for jobs. “Getting married is an impulse. I’ll marry him even without a diamond. But life is sweeter when we are together,” she said.