Changing the Role from Daughters to Wives: Gendered Expectations in Wedding Customs

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This article is part of the 18th issue of LEAP — Voices of Youth e-letter. Subscribe now.

To many people, getting married means a lot in life.

To have a good start in the new stage of life, people usually plan meticulously for a wedding. Through traditional customs, we can see people’s expectations and values for marriage, as well as the gender roles under a patriarchal system.

In the Chinese language, there is a distinction between the words used to describe a woman marrying into her husband’s family (嫁) and a man marrying his wife (娶). From this long-standing vocabulary, one can see implications in Chinese values regarding marriage that a woman is expected to leave her original family to become a part of her husband’s. These values are embodied by the various procedures a bride must undergo on her wedding day.

Toss away the past and become a part of her husband’s family

On the wedding day, the bride gets into the groom’s car, which is parked outside her house. In traditional customs, the bride has to toss a “fan” out of the window of the car. Meanwhile, her mother pours out a basin of water behind the car before it drives away.

In the Minnan dialects, the pronunciation of the word for “fan” (扇) is similar to that of the word for “temper” (性). Therefore, the fan-tossing symbolizes that the bride leaves all her bad tempers in her old family, so that she may serve as a good wife and mother in her new family. In addition, the pronunciation of the word for “fan” and that of the word for “last name” (姓) are also the same. Some people believe that by tossing the fan, the bride sheds her position from her old family and acquires a new last name, thus becoming a member of her husband’s family.

Originally, pouring water behind the car was meant to encourage the bride to face the challenges and difficulties in marriage, and not to run back to her old family whenever there is trouble. However, many have come to think that this custom symbolizes the bride cutting ties with her old family, thus resulting in the saying: “a married daughter is unrecoverable like spilt water.”

The bride tosses a fan out of the window of the car to present leaving bad tempers and shedding position from her parental family.

New roles, new expectations

More challenges await the bride even after she leaves her original family.

The groom’s family places a roof tile and a fire pan in front of the house. After the bride arrives, she must step on the roof tile to break it and cross over the fire pan before she enters the house. Breaking the tile symbolizes breaking bad luck, so that the bride won’t bring misfortune to her husband’s family. The fire pan expels the invisible evil spirits surrounding the bride and symbolizes what is expected of her: to give birth to a boy soon so that the fire of the family lives on.

These customs remind newlywed women of taking up new responsibilities. The rituals transform them from daughters into wives and mothers and in so doing cut their ties with their original families.

In a Chinese wedding, the father often walks down the aisle with his daughter, but as soon as he gives her to the groom, he turns away and leaves. Happy though she might be putting on her wedding ring, the bride is also often in tears watching her father leave. Marriage is joyous and important, but these rituals of cutting ties make it quite melancholy as well.

Traditional customs should evolve with time

Traditional customs could be done by husbands and wives together, transforming the responsibilities of brides into a blessing to the marriage.

In 2014, the Taiwanese government published Modern National Wedding, to provide guidelines of traditional marriage customs that are more in line with the needs of modern times. The front cover reads “Equal Marriages, Mutual Support”. The book provides many interesting suggestions to help people interpret traditional customs with concepts of equality.

For example, the book suggests we interpret the water-pouring practice as a blessing, that the newlyweds’ love will be clear as water. The challenges of stepping on the roof tile and over the fire pan can be done by both the husband and the wife, hand in hand.

While we should preserve traditional culture, more emphasis should be put on the joint efforts by both partners in a marriage, instead of foisting all the responsibilities on women.

As time evolves, traditional customs are no longer unshakable. Some choose to abandon gendered customs in their weddings, while others choose to maintain traditions and transform them into a blessing.

In any case, what matters most is that the couple should have the choice. There is still room for improvement in terms of gender equality and mold-breaking in wedding customs. No one should have to sacrifice anything for a good marriage. Every woman should be the leading role in her own wedding instead of playing a supporting role.

Also in This Issue:

Gender Issues Behind Lunar New Year: Difficulties for daughters to reunite with their parents

Family reunion dinner is the main event in Lunar New Year, but for married women, it’s never easy to come back to their parental families.

Author : Hsien Liu

Freelance writer / Graduate student in Journalism

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LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP: Voices of Youth is a quality platform for English readers to learn about gender issues in Taiwan