Gender and Weddings in Taiwan

by on Tuesday, 28 May 2013 Comments

Red candles, ceremonial cannons, fresh flowers, everybody coming together to celebrate, but with all the throwing of fans (the bride throws a fan on the ground to represent that she's leaving her youthful temper behind her), the bride's mother throwing water at the bride's departing car (spilled water can't be retrieved, which signifies that the daughter should not go back to her old house just like the water can't be unpoured) and walking over broken tiles (which represents overcoming the past and expelling evil deities), the bride can't help but be a little overwhelmed. "Rites" are a kind of standard or a restriction, if a wedding is supposed to be for both the bride and the groom, then why are all the restrictions during the marriage rite imposed on the woman?

Translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart

 Throwing the fan signifies that the bride is abandoning her youthful temper, adopting a whole new role as part of her husband's family. (Photo by He Xiaowei)


Several years ago, I, along with a group of friends who were part of a gender education organization, discovered, through sharing with each other our gendered experience of life, that there were several gender issues that surfaced in everyday rites, such as weddings, funerals, and celebrations. We later recorded these observations and experiences in a book, and published it in 2005, under the title Returning to the bride's family house on the first day of the New Year (Danian chuyi hui niangjia – this is contrary to the Taiwanese tradition of going to the bride's family's house only on the second day of the New Year). Some of the essays within it discussed the restrictions imposed upon the bride by the wedding rites – strengthening patriarchal authority by continual reinforcement through rites. The unfortunate thing is that these rites and rituals remain essentially unchanged even to this day.

Restrictions imposed upon the Bride

The bride is the protagonist and the focus of the whole wedding ceremony, in order that the bride should look "extraordinarily" beautiful in her wedding photos and on the day, allowing her to play the role of the truly awe-inspiring bride, the bride herself and her close friends and relatives will put a lot of effort into enforcing this high standard. Lots of brides start the preparation well in advance by dieting, protecting their skin, using skin care treatments, dying and styling their hair, removing unwanted hair and getting manicures and so on, as the crowd on the day on the wedding day will observe every detail of her physical appearance. The word "male gaze" in gender theory refers not only to the fact that women are often looked at in a pernicious manner by men, but also to the way that they are viewed by other women through the rigid aesthetic sensibility of a patriarchal society. However, we don't make these demands of or make judgments like this on the groom.

As well as the bride having to go to such effort to get ready, on the day of the wedding, there're still more stunning get-up and rituals, like, for example, hanging a large piece of raw pork in the wedding car, the matchmaker holding up a black umbrella to cover the bride, before the wedding car leaves, the bride must throw a fan out of the car window, the mother of the bride then throws a bucket of water at the car, before entering the groom's house, the bride must first step over a stove and walk on broken tiles. Here too, all these trivial rituals are all aimed at the bride, and it's only her who is subject to them.

The wedding rite of course isn't just that. Traditional marriage rites can be traced to the six rites in the 'Nuptial rites for a common officer' chapter in the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial: nabian in which the groom's family present a gift to the bride's family on proposing, wenming in which a present is presented to the bride's family when a messenger from the groom come to ask the girl's name, then the naji where the results of the divination are presented to the bride's family, then the nazheng where engagement gifts are exchanged, qingqi where a date is requested of the bride's family (the request is normally refused by the family and they consent to the date given by the divination), and qinying in which the groom brings the bride home from the bride's parents' house to complete the wedding ceremony. Although modern weddings have already been simplified, on the day of the wedding there are still several things that have to be carried out, which include the following: jizu (worshipping the ancestors), chufa (the groom sets out), ranpao (setting off firecrackers), chijiemeizhuo (a meal for the bridal party), taoxi (where the groom passes out red envelopes to the bridal party), baibie (where the bride bids farewell to her parents with a tea ceremony), chumen (the bride leaves her parents' house), liche (the wedding car), zhishan (where the bride tosses a fan out of the wedding car to signify her leaving behind childish habits), mojuzi (where the bride touches tangerines for good luck), qian xinniang (where the bride is lead into the parents house), jizu (the bride worships the groom's ancestors), jindongfang (they enter the bridal chamber), xiyan (the wedding feast), songke (they bid farewell to the guests), and naodongfang (games or tricks played in the bridal chamber).

Faced with this series of rites, the couple normally just go along with it all, there is little autonomy in these decisions, and little space for challenging the meaning behind them. In fact, many rituals have an extremely blatant gender bias. For example, there is the common "throwing of the fan", where the bride takes two fans, as the wedding car starts to pull out, the bride throws a fan out the window to signify leaving behind her youthful temperament, and prepares to take on her role as a good wife; the fan that she takes with her, represents the good habits that she takes with her to her new home. But why is it expected that the bride has a bad temper, or that only the bride has a bad temper? If we look at the gender proportions in the figures for domestic violence amongst married couples in Taiwan each year, we can see this is a clear falsehood. Another theory behind the throwing of the fan is that it signifies the bride throwing away her maiden name. After getting married, the bride really does lose her maiden name, she becomes 'Mrs so and so' (in Taiwan, however, the bride still retains her maiden surname officially), thence becoming her husband's property; in the past some people would give a new forename to the bride too, completely uprooting her former name (and identity).

Women don't just have to abandon their former selves, they also have to break away from their nuclear family, the groom's family, on the other hand, is increased and enriched, the vocabulary "being married off" and "taking a bride" are small indicators in this general scheme. Therefore, when the wedding car leaves, the bride is requested not to look back, signifying the break with her family, and that she can now invest herself fully in her husband's family. Before she leaves she has to bid farewell to her parents, emotional tears are often exchanged at this point. As to the meaning of the water thrown at the wedding car, when the daughter of former president Chen Shuibian was getting married, the president's wife, Wu Shu-chen, said rather frankly: "After you're married off, don't expect to come back and have a share of the property!" This is undoubtedly an announcement that after marriage the daughter no longer belongs to the original family, and there is a need to draw a line between them, despite the fact that the law has long been adapted to provide for equality in inheritance between daughters and sons.


Photo by He Xiaowei 

Is forming a new family, losing one's old family?

Even though times have changed, the main thrust of the wedding rite takes the groom's family as central, the double standards are clear to see. In 2005, the director Wu Tairen filmed a documentary called Xi (Double happiness), the protagonists of which were two young women about to get married. The documentary recorded the emotional process of the brides in the run-up to their wedding. It gives us a peek into the oppression of tradition, the women can only subject themselves resignedly.

The film was summarized as follows: 'The wedding is a big event. It must be held at the right time and according certain rules and etiquette, when the daughter leaves, the wife, the daughter in laws and the aunts enter. The veiled people happily raise their cups: "Congratulations! The heavens have granted you this fate, we wish the newlyweds be blessed with a son soon, and that they be together forever, happy and fulfilled!" Then, the wife, the daughter in laws and the aunts all smile [...] within the assumed logic of proceedings, there seems to be something, like a little splinter, jabbing into one's heart, a weak underlying signal that betrays a combination of nerves, rage, shyness and grief, just as subtle as the Morse code in Beethoven's Ode to Joy.'

So what are those metaphorical little splinters that Wu Tairen talks about - the so called Morse code in the Ode to Joy? The renowned critic You Huizhen gives us an answer to this question: 'This is a feminine film, the director approaches the film from the perspective of a girl who has just come of marriageable age, and examines how two friends face their impending marriages, their anticipation and doubts. In the process they lay bare the one-sided patriarchal society, and undoubtedly the director's own preoccupations and fears about marriage.' Wu Tairen uses an intricate technique to symbolize the helplessness and resignation felt by the bride's lack of control, for example, after she packs up her room at her parents' house, the home has one less Christmas decoration... The two best friends, as they enter the church, become suddenly silent and teary-eyed, when before they had been full of chat and giggles... 

Independent Women don't obey fathers and husbands

In recent years, weddings have often adopted a Western ritual – the bride's father taking the bride into the wedding hall. The two brides in Xi are no exception to this. In most weddings a common spectacle is as follows: the music rises, after the flower girl, page boy and the bridesmaids, the bride is led in by her father, step by step up a red carpet, when they approach the altar, the father carefully hands his daughter over to the groom, signaling the end of his duty. This is perhaps the moment that most people feel is deeply touching, but in terms of gender roles, this is actually quite controversial.

To take the two protagonists of the film as an example, they both come from two parent families, and are very close to their parents, but it seems like the mother takes the dominant role in raising the children in terms of everyday life. However, it is the father who steals the limelight representing both parents, it is the father, too, that usually makes a speech. Most important is the act by which the father hands the daughter over to the groom, the idea behind which the traditional adage 'at home the bride should obey her father, after marriage she should obey her husband'! What's harder to understand is why an adult woman should need to pass from the hands of one man into the hands of another?


Photo by He Xiaowei

Changing Rituals for a New Era

As well as this, a wedding wouldn't be a wedding without people wishing the bride and groom well with blessings, but if we take a closer look at them, we see that they are full of stereotypes and double standards. For example, telling the bride that she must be filial to her parents in law, and play the role of a good daughter in law, in contrast, no demands like this are made of a son in law. The blessing 'We hope you are soon blessed with a son' also resounds endlessly in one's ears at weddings, and it's best that it be a son, which the various lucky saying reflect, like that eating sweet foods will make one more likely to have a son. Once, at a wedding dinner I attended, the father of the groom when making his speech, kept on saying to the bride: 'Our son is the eldest son of our family, when you enter the door of your new house you should try to have a son soon, to keep our family line going!' apparently ignoring the fact that the bride and groom were university law classmates, and both of them were preparing for civil service and graduate institute entrance examinations. In the end, the father of the bride could not take it anymore, stood up and said, 'I hope that the groom's father won't put too much pressure on my daughter!'

In the face of this ream of unreasonable rituals, there are some people who are attempting to change things. Like, for example, the father who protested on behalf of his daughter above. One of the brides in the documentary says to her family on the eve of her wedding, 'If anyone asks me to throw a fan or someone throws water, I'll not be happy!' As well as passive resistance or preventative measures, there are also some merrier, and more creative examples. For example, some couples go into the hall hand in hand, some dance their way in, others still have both their parents at their side on entering the hall. Daughters of single parents can also be led in by their mothers (and not one of her maternal uncles as is traditional); some couples organize their wedding independently, their parents have only to attend and wish them well, and so the wedding feast does not become a show of social status for the parents (especially the father). 

Dropping corrupt social practices to build female status

As society has become more open over the last few decades, gender consciousness has grown, the gendered meaning of all sorts of celebrations and festivals, including weddings and funerals has started to be reexamined, and there is more discussion about it. In 2004, for example, the Executive Yuan passed a resolution to revise any customs or traditional concepts which were denigrating or discriminatory towards women. After this, they have continued to push in this direction, including commissioning scholars to hold model ceremonies, forums on the rituals attached to weddings and funerals, even looking at gender bias in the questions of the test to become a ceremonial practitioner, as well as publishing Contemporary National Funeral Rites (Xiandai guomin sangli). On the whole, however, the discussion up to now has been dominated by reforming the funeral rites, the wedding rite is mentioned a lot less.

There are a few women/gender groups, who were among the first to recognize the sidelining or denigration of women in many folk customs and rituals. On tomb sweeping day in 2003 the Awakening Foundation held a press conference entitled 'Discussing the gender culture of rituals using the "Lonely Spinster" temple as a basis', in which they pointed out that if women went to their graves unmarried, their memorial tablet could not be housed in their original family's house, but rather must be put in the temple for young girls (guniang miao), where they become "Lonely Spinsters". Women have to go through the marriage system to enter the ranks of their husband's family's ancestors - the only way to avoid becoming a wandering ghost, this shows the restraints under which women are put by the marriage system. In 1973 in the Qijin district of Gaoxiong, a ferry, carrying 25 young women to work at a factory, capsized leaving them all dead, later they were buried together. This tomb was named 'tomb of 25 virtuous women', after several years of lobbying the city government, women's groups successfully got the name of the graveyard changed to 'Female Labourers Memorial Park' . The Taiwan Gender Equity Education Association also provided a lot of reflections about gender roles in weddings, funerals, festivals and celebrations by publishing Returning to the bride's family house on the first day of the New Year. The publication of the book also inspired Professor Xiao Jiaojun of Dong Hwa University to become the first female head ritual practitioner at the Xiao Jiadou Mountain Temple in Shetou, Zhanghua, in its 100 year history . 

Commercialization of Weddings and the Objectification of the Bride

As well as reflecting upon the gendered meaning behind marriage rites, there is another trend that it worth exploring – modern weddings are becoming more and more commercialized, from jewelry to bridal photographs, the gifts presented when the new bride visits her parents in law's house, the wedding feast, the gifts to the bride's parents on the third day after the wedding, and the honeymoon trip to name a few. A lot of the rites are directly related to consumption of goods, it's as if the more one spends, the more pure the love is proven to be. Lots of business people busy themselves creating pretexts by which to encourage spending, like the invention of the wedding planner industry, the commercials which equate diamond rings with love, the ornately decorated boxes of wedding biscuits, the bridal photo-shoot in which the bride poses like a model in front of the lens, the big book of photos that result from it, or on the day of the wedding itself the bride's multiple costume changes, requiring dress after dress.

This new form of the ritual, revolves, for the most part, around the bride. Patriarchal authority meets with capitalism - caught between these two monsters, the burden on the bride and groom is enormous, and means that in terms of weddings, gender equality is still stuck in the past.


Photo by Wang Zhengxiang


Intimate relationships start from equality in the wedding

The wedding rite originated in two people who loved one another deciding to become companions for the rest of their lives, and this was then made public in their vows to one another, they then received blessings from their community. Now, marriage is a legal contract, the public rite is no longer a necessity. This is a good opportunity to rethink weddings. Maybe some people will then decide not to get married, and use the money left over as a nest egg, giving the couple a solid financial foundation to start their new life; some people perhaps still like the idea of a wedding, and if they're going to have one they might as well be creative about it, with the bride and the groom as the focus. The happy couple should represent together their own image of newlyweds, leaving people with lasting memories of a unique wedding!

The gendered meaning behind this kind of wedding, whether or not it preserves the traditional rite or takes a more creative approach, should always be examined by the bride and groom in their decisions, and the elements that are discriminatory or denigrating towards women should be abandoned, so that for both the bride and groom it can be a happy memory – and represent a democratization of the relationship.      




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