Traditions & Customs

Matchmaker

When a boy’s parents find a potential daughter-in-law, the parents contact a matchmaker. It is the matchmaker’s job to “assuage the conflict of interests and general embarrassments on the part of two families largely unknown to each other when discussing the possibility of marriage” (Wikipedia). If the girl and her parents accepted the proposal, the matchmaker would match their birth dates using a Chinese fortune telling technique called Suan Ming. Suan Ming is used to predict the future of the to-be-couple by analyzing the person’s eight characters or hand pattern. If the Suan Ming results are good, the bridegroom’s family arranges for the matchmaker to present a bride price and a dowry (betrothal gifts) to the bride’s family.

In olden times, marriage was regarded as a commercial transaction instead of a match of love so matchmaker agents were relied upon. A matchmaker was usually an elderly woman who could apply her own marital experience and wisdom. Her age made her unattractive to potential bridegrooms. The role of a matchmaker was unfit for young girls for fear that they could possibly be compromised. She was financially involved in a marriage and therefore depended on her relationships and her persuasive skills. The matchmaker would often visit the households of the potential bride or groom and carry letters back and forth between them. Click here to learn more about matchmakers and their job process.

A legend of The Matchmaker follows: “The Matchmaker is the god who unites persons in marriage in a Chinese legend that originated in Tang Dynasty. As the legend goes, the matchmaker holds a book in his hands called “the book of fate”, on which the marriage of all people are recorded. Also in his hands there is a red strand, and once he ties a man and a woman on their feet with the strand, the two will surely become a couple even if they were once irreconcilable enemies or strangers far away from each other. There is a folk custom in China to make statues of the matchmaker and build temple to pray for blessings. People can burn joss sticks, draw straws and vow to the god for their marriage” (cultural-china.com).

Eight Characters

The Eight Characters are a method that is used to read a person’s life. It is made up four pillars, which consist of the person’s birth year, month, day, and hour. Each of these four pillars are represented by two characters, thus summing up to Eight Characters. Click here to learn more.

The first of these two characters represent a Heavenly Stem. There are 10 Heavenly Stems that are yin and yang components of the Five Elements: Yang Wood, Yin Wood, Yang Fire, Yin Fire , Yang Earth, Yin Earth, Yang Metal, Yin Metal, Yang Water, Yin Water.

The second character represents an Earthly Branch. There are 12 Earthly Branches that refer to the 12 zodiac animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.
Click here to learn more about the Eight Characters, also known as The Four Pillars of Destiny.

Chinese Zodiac

The Chinese Zodiac is composed of twelve animal signs, and depending on the year a person is born, is designated to that animal. The animal you are paired with describes your entire personality, and who you would be compatible with in the future. The Zodiac was a big factor in the aspect of marriage in Ancient China.

Dowries

The bride’s family prepares a dowry and gives a list of the dowries to the groom’s family. Dowry is mostly composed of daily necessities for the new home. This includes bedding, linen, dining set, etc. Girls start learning needle work at young age, and are prepared with plenty of handmade shoes, socks, table cloth etc, as part of her dowry. This is also an opportunity for the bride’s family to display their love for their daughter as well as their wealth and social status. Wealthy parents always have the option of throwing in some real estate or a couple of servant girls. To learn more about dowries and Chinese weddings, click here.

Sanzhaoshu

Sanzhaoshu is also known as Marriage Congratulation or Wedding Text. It is usually displayed in many forms from handkerchiefs and fans to books made of cloth. Sanzhaoshu was an important part in wedding rituals. On the day before a girl’s wedding, all female relatives came over to look over her Sanzhaoshu. It was delivered to the bride in her marital home and was shared among all the females. The Sanzhaoshu’s contents usually consisted of describing, the bride’s new role, the author’s relationship to the bride, and instructions for the new bride. It also represented the bride’s social value, for the quality of the writing reflected on the bride and her people. Sanzhaoshu helped the bride transition into her new life and home. Also, it served as the bride’s letter of introduction to her marital home from her natal family and her sworn sisters (Chinese communication studies).

Pregnancy Beliefs

Throughout the novel, Snow Flower struggles to please her husband and his family by conceiving a son. When she is unable to produce the desired results, Snow Flower is put to blame and sometimes put at fault because of Chinese pregnancy beliefs.

Chinese have many pregnancy beliefs that they put their faith in almost religiously. Some beliefs were to not criticize others, otherwise the baby will act and look like the person you criticize, and to not eat pineapples because it causes miscarriages. Another pregnancy belief describes one a way to determine if the baby will be a boy or girl. First, you had to look at the mother’s belly. If the belly is “pointed” it will be a boy and if the belly is “rounded” it will be a girl. To learn more about the pregnancy, labor, and delivery beliefs of the Chinese culture, click here.

Many believe it is unlucky to throw a baby shower before the baby is born. There are many ancient taboos, such as sex being forbidden during pregnancy. Also, the Chinese do not usually name their babies before they are born. They are given milk names instead which act as false names to scare away evil spirits. Click here to learn more about traditions regarding pregnancy in China.

Red Egg and Ginger Party

A Red Egg and Ginger Party was a custom in Chinese culture that celebrated a baby’s first month birthday. The first month of a baby’s life was important due to the high infant mortality rate. There was hope that if the baby made it to the first month, the baby would continue to survive. The baby’s name is traditionally announced at this time.

Guests bring gifts and “luck money” in red envelopes known as Lysee. The parents hand out red-dyed eggs to the guests, which symbolize happiness and the renewal of life. The color red represented happiness and good luck, and the eggs represent fertility. The shape of the egg is associated with harmony and unity. “Ginger is important because in the yin (cold) and yang (warm) balance of Chinese food, ginger adds a touch of ‘hotness’ to the nutritional needs of the new mother, who is tired and weak (or too yin) after giving birth” (littlebuddhababy). Click here to learn more about this joyous occasion.

In Chinese culture, the tiger is considered the king of all animals, and it is believed that it will protects babies. Guests often bring presents pertaining to tigers from tiger hats to tiger bibs. These tiger shoes have embroidered eyes that are sewn wide-open. These open eyes were believed to help keep children from tripping as they first learn to walk! (littlebuddhababy)

Hair Pinning Days

Part of the book is divided into the Hair Pinning Days. The Hair Pinning Days refers to young Chinese women in the process of being married off to her arranged husband. There are many customs that are followed as the wedding takes several days.

Click here to read about the coming of age ceremonies in China.
Click here to read about the Hair Pinning Ceremony.
Click here to read about the Chinese marriage customs.
Click here to read about the Chinese wedding culture.
Click here to read about the life of Chinese married women.
Click here to read about the Chinese wedding traditions.
Click here to read more about the Chinese marriage customs.

Rice and Salt Days

Rice and Salt Days is another division in the book, when a married woman is taking care of her family and household. She is responsible for raising her children, taking care of the elderly, especially her mother-in-law, and all domestic duties.

Click here to read about the women in Traditional China and the changes throughout the dynasties.
Click here to read about the daily life of Chinese women.
Click here to read about the position of women in Chinese history.
Click here to read more about Chinese women.

Concubines

Concubine

A Concubine was a woman that lived with a man, but was not married to him. Concubines are what others consider today as “mistresses;” but remain different in the fact that men with concubines were tolerated.

Three Concubines Together

A man could have as many concubines as he wanted (it is said that emperors had thousands of concubines for themselves). In fact, the more concubines a man had, the more powerful he was considered. A women; however, was considered shameful for being a concubine. Nevertheless, they were allowed to live and stay with their ‘husband.’

Concubines Today

While Concubines are no longer part of regular Chinese custom, they still do exist today in modern China. How many men today still have concubines is unknown.

Click here for a brief introduction to Concubines in Ancient China. This site also provides an article on ‘Er nai,’ which is a concubine today in modern China. Click here for the ‘Er nai’ article.

Click here for an in depth look at Concubines, as well as Polygamy and Divorce in China.

Click here to read stories about Concubines.

Foot Binding

Description and History

X-ray of Bound Feet

X-ray of Bound Feet

Foot Binding is a painful practice in ancient China of binding ones feet. The point of foot binding was to get a perfect “Golden Lotus,” which was a foot length of 3 inches. Foot Binding was the key to a woman’s worth. Based on the size of feet alone, a woman could go up or down in standing. If a woman did not bind her feet, they would never be married, and be shamed for the rest of their lives.

Click here for an in depth look at foot binding and other components that made up this painful practice.

Click here for a very in depth look into foot binding. This site includes Foot Binding’s early beginnings, what women went through, the anti-foot binding movement, and more.

Yao Niang

An Artist's Prtrayal of Yao Niang

While not confirmed, the story of Yao Niang was known everywhere to every little girl with bound feet. The story begins around 970A.D. Yao Niang was the favorite concubine of the prince. The prince liked to watch Yao Niang dance, and whenever she was ordered to, Yao Niang would wrap her feet in silk and perform on top of a “golden lotus pedestal.” The Prince loved the look of her dance so much, that the other concubines started mimicking her. This, apparently, is how the term “Golden Lotus” came to exist.

There are many different variations of this tale, but all describe that Yao Niang was the origin of the “Golden Lotus.”

Click here for one variation of Yao Niang’s story.

Click here for a similar tale about Yao Niang.

Tiny-Footed Maiden

The Tiny Footed Maiden was considered a “goddess,” and young girls would pray and give offerings to her in hopes of having perfectly bound feet. There are no pictures or statues today of the Tiny Footed Maiden, so it is unclear what she looked like. This is due to the fact that she was a women’s goddess, so she was not considered as important. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the women, she was very important, and every girl, if they hoped to have pefect “Golden Lotuses,” would make an offering to the Tiny Footed Maiden.

Click here for more information on the Tiny Footed maiden. (Pages 63-66) This book preview also provides very detailed information on other aspects of Foot Binding.

Foot Binding Shoes

Foot Binding Shoes

Foot Binding Shoes

Foot Binding shoes usually all held the same components. They were small, decorated in different colors and patterns, and made with silk.

Click here to learn about the history of foot binding shoes, as well as other information like the binding process, their construction, colors used, etc.

Click here for an article on foot binding in general, but also provides a bit about foot binding maintenance.

Stories

An Old Women with Bound Feet

Click here to listen to stories from women who underwent foot binding.

Click here for an article on foot binding, which also includes photos of a real women’s bound feet. *Warning- Very graphic photos*

Laotong/Sworn Sisters

Sworn Sisters

Sworn sisters were women who spent time together talking with, embroidering with, and sharing everything with. While not sisters by blood, sworn sisters were held together by strong bonds, much more so than a woman had with her biological sister. Everything, from feelings, to thoughts, to emotions, to desires, were shared between sworn sisters.

Old Laotongs

More special than a sworn sister relationship was a “laotong relationship.” Essentially the same thing as a sworn sisters, but instead remained lifelong. Sworn sisters lasted until a woman married out, while a laotong relationship would last until both women died.

Laotongs Snow Flower and Lily from The Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Movie

Between sworn sisters and laotongs, the secret language of nu shu was spoken, or more accurately, written. Nu Shu was a language only meant for women, and sworn sisters would communicate through nu shu, weather it be in songs, poems stories, etc.

Want to choose your own Laotong? Click here to find her on Facebook!

Click here for a brief introduction to sworn sister relationships and a little bit of nu shu as well.

Click here for an in depth look into the relationships between laotongs and sworn sisters.

Little Daughter-in-Laws

(Shim-Pua Marriage)

Little daughter-in-laws are different compared to other marriages by the fact that it is not by choice. This is called a Shim-Pua Marriage, where a family in poverty with too many children would sell one of their own daughters to a richer family to do labor. When she was older, she would usually marry the youngest son of the family.

Traditional Role of Chinese Women

The role of women in ancient China is very simple: always submit to the males of the family. Women were taught to obey the father as a young girl, obey their husband as a wife, and lastly obey her son when she is a widow. A woman was always in charge of all the household chores, and the man in charge of all the affairs outside the house. This seperation among men and woman was in order to perserve the balance between yin and yang. One cannot fully dominate another in order to be in balance. Click here to learn more.

Chinese Burial Customs

Customs done after a person’s death were taken very seriously. Everything was given to the person in order to go comfortably into the afterlife. This ritual lasts up to seven weeks. Each funeral is different depending on the person. If it is a child the funeral will not be as extravagant or as long as an honored grandmother’s. Click here and here to learn more.

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2 responses

  1. This is a great source. Very informative. I am in the process of reading the book, having first seen the movie. I had done extensive searches on information about foot binding for use in my World History classes, yet I only found this site after reading in the book about the “Tiny-footed Maiden”. I think I will assign this book for my classes next school year.

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