‘Eternal Vow Group’, said large neon letters high above the doorway. What better place could be found to get married? In order to find it, I had left at daybreak, to travel by metro, car and foot into the countryside east of Beijing. A rural wedding, I was told, so I came expecting tradition, farmers, the whole village, strong spirits (baijiu) and much revelry.
Not quite, for the venue was a marriage centre in the local town. Beijingers also came here, but they did so because they had moved not so long ago from the villages hereabouts and into the city for work. Much family remained in the countryside, so it seemed logical to hold the wedding closer to home.
The vows may not always be so eternal, but the need for human beings to surround with ritual the issues of sex, relationships and the mutual fruit of a couple’s loins does seem to be eternal and indeed universal. In both cases, it depends on what one means by ‘eternal’ and ‘universal’. Eternal rarely seems to mean forever, except in a romanticised imagination, and universal includes a bewildering array of diversity that renders the term somewhat tenuous and loose.
As for the couple in question, he was in the second half of his thirties and already had a child from a former marriage. He was here for his second bout of eternity. She was 35 and had not been married before, although not for want of searching. Like so many Chinese women, she belied the traditional adage that a woman past 30 is unmarriageable, a ‘leftover woman’ who was by now too independent to be attractive to a man.
The basic ingredients of the wedding were familiar to me. A heterosexual couple in ‘love’ wanted to indicate a desire to be recognised as such in an official way, to have children and to restrict their sexual activity to the mutual use of each other’s genitals. Indeed, she had had an abortion a few months earlier, since she did not want to have a child outside marriage. Yet the rest of the wedding was a curious mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.
The formalities began at 11.18.
Curious, I asked why. What is wrong with 11.00 am? The key, it turns out, is the number 8. Said ‘ba’ it is supposed to sound like ‘fa’, meaning good fortune, wealth and happiness. So as long as one can get an 8 in somewhere, one is off to a good start. I am told – with no way of checking the veracity – that the phone number, 888888888, sold for more than one million RMB in the province of Guangzhou. And the number one, yi, is often said as yao, which is very close to yao, of which one of the meanings is to want or wish. So 11.18 reads as yao yao yao ba, indicating one hopes the numbers align and the marriage is indeed blessed with good fortune.
We gathered outside in a September sun, which can already be quite fierce in China’s northern parts. The pavilion itself was festooned with flowers and draping fabric, echoing traditional practices. Traditional too were the brief speeches by key personages, the ubiquitous hongbao (red envelopes stuffed with cash) as wedding gifts, and the mutual drinking of wine from two cups tied together by red string. The rest was a curious mix that seemed decidedly less traditional and more in line with China’s continual efforts to reshape foreign traditions to its own concerns. Thus, the bride wore white, which is really the colour of death. The groom wore a suit and the effervescent master of ceremonies was rakishly attired in a tight suit, whites and a tilted brimmed hat. I caught the groom in a reflective moment, wishing I could ascertain his thoughts. Was he thinking, ‘here I go again?’ Or perhaps, ‘I can’t wait to get plastered later’. Or, ‘I can’t believe a woman like this has picked as asshole like me’.
With touches of sunburn by the close of the open air ceremony, we retired inside for the meal. One could, suggested the one who invited me, simply slip into a seat at any number of the other ‘receptions’ going on at the same time. I might have had to endure another version of the video display, showing the newly wedded couple in all manner of goofy, romantic and suggestive engagements. But such a video was also showing at the one I was supposed to attend. Remarkable how appropriate lighting and careful camera angles can make one look younger, slimmer and more vigorous than one really is.
Like other weddings, the food was piled high and the alcohol in almost unending supply. Some made the most of the food, others of the alcohol, and some of both. But unlike other weddings I have attended, the bride at an appropriate moment gave a symbolic dowry to her groom’s parents and then served them tea. By this time, she had slipped into more conventional Chinese wedding gear, where the colour red (not just a socialist colour) marks the anticipated good fortune and happiness.
To show their appreciation for all who had come to wish them heart-felt and less-than-heartfelt wishes, bride and groom proceeded to visit each table. The women were offered a tray of chocolates from which to choose, while the men were offered a cigarette and a shot of baijiu, the wicked spirit beloved hereabouts. With each man, the groom knocked back another toast, working his way through – by my calculation – almost two bottles of the stuff.
Here one had to wish them all the best with various formulae: gongxi xinhun (congratulations for being newly married); zhu nimen bainian haohe (I wish you a hundred years of happiness together); yongyuaihe (may you bathe forever in the river of love) – although the last one is potentially a little frightening.
I sincerely wished them the best in my broken Chinese, although not so much the river of love. Having been through three or four ‘serious’ relationships in my time, I hoped that they could find a way, through all the challenges, to what the ancient Greeks called pragma: the long-lasting love that has weathered all manner of crises so that a couple still sparks when they are together.