Just after Bo Xiao and his bride bowed to their parents at their traditional Chinese wedding ceremony to pay their respects, he handed the bride’s parents a red envelope stuffed with $20,000 cash to pay her “bride price”.
- Beijing calls for an end to “vulgar” wedding practices and “super-high bride prices”
- Bride prices vary from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands
- Couples are splashing up to $500,000 for pre-wedding photoshoots
The 29-year-old had already spent more than a year stumping up nearly $500,000 in preparation for his marriage in the north-eastern city of Anyang, which included a newly renovated apartment, a sports car for his wife, as well as 30 rooms at a five-star hotel for the wedding guests to attend their jaw-dropping reception.
While Mr Xiao still has no regrets paying for his “good memories” at his “once-in-his-lifetime” wedding two years ago, last week the Chinese Government called for a reform of the country’s increasingly “extravagant and wasteful” weddings.
After a national forum on marriage etiquette and customs, the Government urged for an end to “vulgar” wedding practices, “money worship”, lavish ceremonies, and “super-high bride prices” — the money paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s parents.
“We should integrate the core value of socialism and Chinese traditional culture into the construction of marriage and family … so that marriage customs can better reflect national values,” the Ministry of Civil Affairs said in their statement.
Bride prices in China vary from as little as hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and serve as a symbolic payment to the bride’s parents for “giving” their daughters away to the groom’s family — and expectations have only been rising over the past decade.
The concept of extravagant weddings is also a stark contrast to the hardships and struggle experienced during the Cultural Revolution just over 40 years ago, where people could only redeem food using coupons while some of the most desirable wedding gifts included sewing machines and bicycles.
Wedding photos back then were also generally passport-style records of a marriage.
Fast-forward to today, and some couples are splashing up to $500,000 just for pre-wedding shoots, according to recently-released Australian documentary China Love, which explores the costly photography trend in a wedding industry worth more than $80 billion annually in China.
It’s also becoming increasingly common for couples to buy inclusive wedding packages with makeup artists and tailored ceremonies on popular Chinese e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and JD.com.
The once black and white sterile wedding photos are now replaced with exquisitely-bound albums filled with artistic photos taken in different clothes and locations after whole day shoots, while others who are more cashed-up travel the world to fill their books.
In October 2015, Chinese actress and model Angela Yeung — widely dubbed the Kim Kardashian of China — and actor Huang Xiaoming reportedly spent a staggering 200 million yuan ($40 million) on their wedding.
And earlier this week, video footage of a Chinese couple’s lavish $120,000 wedding reception venue — the Hangzhou International Exhibition Centre where the 2016 G20 Hangzhou summit was held — went viral on China’s popular video platform TikTok.
Olivia Martin-McGuire, director of the China Love documentary, believes Chinese people are now displaying their wealth because it hadn’t been possible in the past, particularly for people who lived through the decade-long Cultural Revolution.
“I’m not sure that we really understand the weight of being punched if you even showed the slightest hint of money or any kind of individualism,” she said.
“You just weren’t allowed to stand out from the crowd.
“I think as the way the pendulum swings, it’s swung in the other direction … [people] display wealth and get dressed up six times in a day and really jump into that fantasy world, because [they] can.”
However, she maintained that it was only “a very small number of people” that spending big on pre-wedding photos, adding that 90 per cent of the country still didn’t even own a passport.
She also believed that the Chinese Government’s call for brides and grooms to have simpler weddings would have an impact on the industry.
“I think [it’s] different in Singapore, Hong Kong and other places where you can just go completely crazy like the Crazy Rich Asians film,” she said.
“There are limits, it’s more controlled, and there is constant media [coverage] around flaunting money.”
Tian Sang, a wedding host from China’s Henan province, said while some people spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on weddings, most people would only spend about $2,000.
He added the vast majority of brides made the key decisions around the weddings, and the grooms usually just paid for them.
‘Men really have to own an apartment’
While China is urbanising at a rapid rate, there are still many families across the country who see the ownership of “three necessities” as prerequisites for an eligible bachelor — an apartment, a car, and a good amount of savings in the bank.
Ms Martin-McGuire said there were different pressures on everyone in the family regarding marriage.
“It’s always the parents who work very hard to buy an apartment if they have a son, so they can get married,” she said.
“And the women have to marry while they’re still young, otherwise they’re vilified by society and called ‘leftover women’.”
Experts believe the expectation for men to own an apartment is even more critical in rural areas, partially due to the one-child policy introduced by the Chinese Government in 1979 to crackdown on overpopulation.
While the one-child policy made it possible for parents to significantly give their children a leg-up into home ownership, it also created a skewed sex ratio because the Chinese culture has traditionally favoured male offspring, especially in rural parts of the country.
The ratio imbalance has also led to bride trafficking, where women from China’s poorer neighbours — such as Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam — are sold to men in Chinese villages.
Pan Wang, author of the book Love and Marriage in Globalising China and an academic at the School of International Studies at UTS, said men in China’s rural areas generally struggled to find a bride for themselves.
“That’s another reason [why] nowadays we see bride prices going up — because they’re really needed to attract women,” she said.
“So how do they attract women? They need to acquire wealth, and that is [usually] in the form of property.”
While many families in China’s major cities still hold traditional views, Dr Wang said younger generations are also embracing the concept of “naked marriages”.
The term is used to describe an increasing number of couples choosing to tie the knot even if they can’t afford a house, a ring, or even a ceremony.
By Christina Zhou and Bang Xiao