Traditions and Modernism in Chinese Weddings: Spousal Materialistic Contributions and Expectations


Francis Piron and Hong Xia Zhang (2002) ,"Traditions and Modernism in Chinese Weddings: Spousal Materialistic Contributions and Expectations", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 248-251.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 248-251


Francis Piron, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Hong Xia Zhang, Peking University, China

In 1956, when she was 27, Ms. Guo Lianfeng married a man six years her senior. Her widowed mother rented a pedicab to send to her new husband along with three quilts, one bedding sheet, one wash basin, a towel, and a toothbrush. The groom then borrowed 200 yuan from friends to buy a second-hand bed, a two-drawer chest and a wood case to furnish the tiny one-room housing unit provided by the groom’s work brigade, without bathroom or toilet.

Fu Shun had savings of 300 yuan when she married in 1972. Her husband had saved around 1,000 yuan. His working unit offered a foldable bed, a used desk with three drawers and a chair. The groom bought two new pairs of pants as wedding gifts for his bride and himself, and a quilt cover. The bride’s family gave the new couple a thermos bottle, a cotton quilt, a silk quilt cover, a pair of pillowcases, an aluminum pan and a round mirror. The newlyweds moved into a warehouse without kitchen, bathroom or toilet. For their wedding reception, the couple spent 20 yuan on candies and treats for their closest friends, and to immortalize the day, spent 50 cents on a wedding picture where they proudly displayed a metal pin of Chairman Mao on their chest.

In Chinese society, marriages are a very important event. Both wedding ceremonies described above are representative of how millions of other Chinese citizens married during the first two generations of the People’ Republic of China. Half a century after its founding, the PRC has widely opened to consumer goods, and income and spending power have leapfrogged. It would be interesting, then, to investigate how gift giving has evolved to respond to contemporary rban Chinese consumers’ expectations and priorities as they marry. In addition, in response to noted changes in the Chinese urban culture (Cheng and Schweitzer 1996; Piron and Wang 2001; Piron, Wang and Mai, 2000; Wolf 1999), we investigate the cultural changes that can be observed in urban Chinese weddings.

While gift giving is a cross-culturally pervasive phenomenon, it is often observed as taking different forms or fulfilling different objectives across cultures (Carrier 1991; Hyde 1983; Parry 1986). For instance gift-giving may serve somewhat self-centered (Belk 1982) and/or altruistic purposes (Sherry 1983). Giving gifts may also be spurious or organized, such as for specific lifetime events (e.g.; the birth of a child, birthdays, marriages) or for cultural holidays (e.g., Chinese New Year, Christmas, Hari Raya, Deepavali, etc.).


Motivation for altruistic gift giving can be economic (i.e., as a tool toward reaching one’s objectives), social (i.e., to create, maintain and strengthen social bonds) or agapic (i.e., for sheer love). The phenomenon has been extensively investigated across cultures, and also among Hong Kong Chinese (Joy 2001;; Yau, Chan and Lau 1999), but scarcely in China (Piron, Wang and Mai 2000; Yan 1996). Importantly, Chinese consumer behavior research often cautions on transferring knowledge about Hong Kong or Singaporean Chinese and Taiwanese consumers to those of the PRC (Tse, Belk and Zhou, 1989).

Recently, Piron, Wang and Mai (2000) found that gift giving in China is in a stage of transformation, leaning toward a Westernization of the behavior, maybe due to the increasing impact of foreign media (Belk and Zhou 2001) and cultural themes (e.g., Christmas, Valentine Day) in the PRC media. They also found that the motivation for and actualization of gift giving responded more to traditional expectations in rural China than in the capital city. Specifically, Piron, Wang and Mai (2000) found that gift giving within urban families was not necessarily subjected to the traditional motives still strongly upheld in rural families: to gain face, to establish guan xi, and for reciprocity. Further, Western-style opportunities for gift giving (e.g., Valentine Day, Christmas, etc.) were rampant in urban China but unheard of in the rural areas.


The Chinese civilization is one of the oldest in the world with over four millenia of recorded history. Anchored in Confucianism for most of its past, it has gone through havoc within the past half century. In response to the Cultural Revolution’s slogans to destroy all remnants of the past, the Chinese people embarked on obliterating all tangible (e.g., statues, temples, painting, art objects, etc.) and intangible (e.g., religions, filial piety, etc.) aspects of the pre-revolutionary culture to create a new, Marxist-Leninist society. Fortunately, the destructive forces were not entirely successful, but certain values lost firm grounding and may be in the process of being replaced by modernism, one of Deng Xiao Ping’s "Four Pillars." To the Chinese government, modernism was meant to develop the means through which Chinese consumers would rapidly acquire consumer goods toward the betterment of life.

As a result, Qing (2000) argues that the Chinese culture is dead, stating that Confucianism is no longer taught in school, but simply indexed in museums and history books. She further argues that as the generation that went through the cultural revolution was deprived of its cultural heritage and was immersed into a revolutionary culture that did not survive, it cannot pass on what it does not know! Further, Wolf (1999) elaborate on a Dentsu Institute report highlighting the Westernization of urban Chinese: consumers in the larger Chinese urban centers prefer Western products, movies and fashion to domestic ones. Also, Piron and Wang (2001), comparing urban and rural Chinese homes, found a general absence of traditional Chinese items (e.g., statues of Chinese deities, ancestors’ tablets, Chinese style furniture, etc.) in urban homes. However, they reported that such traditional items were often prominently displayed in the rural homes they visited.

However, in a recent investigation of parental values on children education in China, Veeck et al. (2001) found that the traditional high value placed on education and on that of children in particular is still very strong in Chinese society. Veeck et al (2001) disagree with the often-made claim that China’s single children are spoiled and turned into "Little Emperors" (Xiao Wang). Clearly, the burden of a taxing education is still very much on the single children’s shoulders and on that of their parents. Education, while frowned upon during the height of the Cultural Revolution, is a cultural value that has returned strongly in the Chinese culture.

In other words, not all traditional cultural values have either disappeared or changed in China, and it is important to further investigate which components of the traditional culture have changed. Thus, our contribution is in the assessment of younger, urban, soon-to-be-married Chinese’ priorities, and also in comparing how the marriage ceremony itself, along with the accompanying gift-giving, may differ from recorded traditions.


Twenty four couples who were visiting a photo salon to take wedding pictures were asked to participate in the research. In each instance, both prospective spouses participated in the in-depth interview process and answered 12 open-ended questions and provided demographic data. As some questions required more than a single answer, we retained all provided answers when couples disagreed on the priority of their options.


The following section highlights the demographic profile of the participating couples and their answers to the 12 questions, object of the interviews. The section concludes with a discussion elaborating on the findings of this research.

The study was conducted in Beijing, the capital city of the PRC. Along with three coastal areas, Beijing offers higher incomes, diverse lifestyles and enhanced access to consumer goods. Half the male participants were between 22 and 27 years of age, and over 28 years old, and 19 of the brides-to-be were between 22 and 27 years old, and only five were 28 years old or older. All but one had graduated from college and held at least mid-managerial positions. Half the male and one third of the female respondents earned a monthly income of 3,000 yuan or more, a high income by national standards, but fairly representative of middle- and upper-middle class Beijingers. In sum, while our sample did not aim at representing Chinese citizens as a whole, it fairly describes middle class, professional urbanites

Respondents were encouraged to mention at least five items to the first question asking: "What do you want most out of marriage?" A total of 120 items were mentioned altogether. "Housing" was mentioned the most (n=20) followed by "furniture" (n=12), and electrical equipment (n=7). The least often-mentioned items relate to non-material issues, such as achievement (n=2), emotional appeal (n=2), comfort in distress and difficult times (n=1), and reliance on each other (n=1). Almost one third of the answers (39/120) dealt specifically with material possessions, whle less than half a percent (6/120) were related to emotions leading to relationship building.

The second question tapped consumers’ priority or urgency in the products they would first buy when getting married. Considering that, in China, most non-married, younger people live in their parents’ household, the intent of the question was to tap consumer’s perceived importance of certain products towards making their first home comfortable and up to their expectations. As much as possible, respondents were encouraged to answer beyond product names by identifying a preferred brand name. Respondents generated 97 items to Question 2. Furniture received the highest priority (n=11) with one consumer showing preference for Ikea, the Swedish furniture manufacturer and marketer. Clothing items came in second (n=10) with two consumers selecting domestic brands (Angsi and Mysheros). Refrigerators were the third most popular selection (n=9) with five consumers leaning toward domestic brands (Haier n=4; and Yilaikesi n=1), and one preferring an imported brand (Siemens). Electronic appliances and television sets came next, being mentioned eight times each. Two consumers had already selected Haier, a Chinese brand, for future appliances, while Changhong, a local brand of television sets, had been pre-selected by one consumer, and two foreign brands, Sony and Toshiba were also selected by one consumer each. One respondent had his thoughts on a video camera and another on a Nikon camera.

The next question tapped each future spouse’s contribution to the new household. The aim of the question was to assess whether gender-based stereotypical contributions exist, and if so whether they depart from the traditions. Both genders overwhelmingly stated their intention to personally contribute electrical appliances to the new household (60% of responses for each gender). Toshiba was the only brand mentioned by either future spouse when referring to the television set they would contribute.

The fourth question requested participating couples to indicate what their parents would contribute to the new household. Of the 35 items generated from the question, ten related to appliances and eight mentioned cash. The next most often cited parental contribution (n=7) was bedding.

Along with parental contribution, the next item asked what type of gifts did the future couple expect to receive from relatives and friends. The question elicited 31 responses. About one third (n=10/31) referred to different sorts of household electrical appliances, followed closely by cash (n=8/31). Decorative and commemorative gifts came in next (n=7/31).

To better understand the young couples’ expectations with respect to gifts offered by parents, relatives and friends, the next question asked for specific brand names for the products they had identified most as expected gifts. Most couples could not state specific brands for expected gifts, but of those who could, two selected Haier, a PRC brand, and two others hoped for a German and a Japanese brand of appliances. One couple hoped for Japanese or European decoration items, but did not have a specific brand in mind. Three future brides were looking forward to receiving Clinique, L’Oreal or Oil of Olay cosmetics, and another was counting on jewelry from DeBeers.

The interviews then branched out toward the type of ceremony the couple wanted to have for their wedding and answers were evenly split between both Chinese and western styles (n=12) and Chinese style only (n=12). To avoid potential miscommunication, the questions were framed along with a brief description of each type of ceremony. For example, in the Western style wedding, "the bride wears a white wedding gown and the groom a dark suit," and in the Chinese style wedding, "the bride wears red, traditional Chinese clothes, and the groom also wears traditional Chinese clothing."

The following question asked each couple to describe exactly what they would wear during the ceremony along with the type of music that would be played, and the food and beverage that would be served. As indicated above, all the couples planned to mrry wearing traditional clothing (and one half would also have a ceremony wearing western clothes). Of those wearing Western style clothing, three brides indicated that they would wear an evening gown, one stated her intention to wear "a red woolen suit with high boots," and another one would wear a pink dress. One groom wants to wear a gray or a green suit, and another one will wear a silver gray suit.

With respect to food and catering, all couples sided with Chinese food, and 20 stated that they would hold the dinner at a Chinese restaurant, with two couples holding a reception at a three-star hotel, and three others at a four-star hotel. Chosen beverages are almost exclusively liquors and spirits, in addition to beer and wine. Interestingly, all the brands stated by the couples were local brands. Not one couple identified famous brands of French brandy as beverages for their wedding reception, even though such drinks have become common in Chinese dinners and socializing.

Only two couples indicated their intention to play Western-style music for their wedding. All others specifically mentioned different styles of Chinese music to accompany their vows.

Question 9 asked respondents to indicate whether they planned to entertain and dine their wedding guests at home or at a restaurant, and whether the new couple planned to travel domestically or abroad for their honeymoon. Fourteen couples intended to entertain guests at a restaurant, and eight of those couples also intended to travel domestically. One couple did not plan on entertaining anybody but just wanted to travel together within China. Another couple was making plans to return to their hometown and wed there.

An important aspect of weddings in China is to take pictures. Several articles have appeared in the international media, as of late, to discuss the renewed importance of wedding pictures in the PRC. For instance, couples who wed during the revolutionary times often did not have pictures taken for lack of money and also because it gave a "bourgeois" impression not in vogue in those days. Only one couple stated that they would not have pictures taken by a professional studio. Nine couples had decided on spending between RMB1,000 and 2,000 for professional photographs, and four couples planned on spending between RMB 2,000 and 3,000 (most couples earn less than RMB 3,000 per month).

When asked whether the new couple would hire a professional to run the wedding ceremony, two replied that they had considered the option, but not decided yet. Clearly, 19 couples had already decided against that option because of the expense involved.

Traditionally, the groom’s family is responsible for the wedding expenses. However, here again, traditions are being challenged. Six couples stated that the families would split the expenses evenly. Another six couples indicated that the husband’s family would pay most of the costs, but not all. The rest offered different ratios in cost sharing, ranging between three to one to five to three, in favor of the bride’s family.

Spending on a wedding ceremony can be high in China. While seven of the 24 couples planned on spending between RMB 4,000 and 10,000, eight couples planned on spending between RMB 10,001 and 30,000, and three couples counted on splashing for more than RMB 30,000. Considering that RMB 3,000 is considered a high salary in Beijing, wedding ceremony expenses appear considerable in most cases.


Traditionally, marriages in China were not so much an affair of the heart, but an alliance of two families with mutually beneficial objectives. The focal purpose of a marriage is "duo zi duo sun" or to have many children and grandchildren. Even contemporary Chinese may feel, as opposed to most Westerners, that love needs not be an initial component of a marriage. What matters is the new couple’s matching backgrounds education and objectives. It is believed that love, if possible, will grow from the relationship. The realities of life in contemporary China force young adults to even more calculations: getting married is about the only way for someone to have access to their own housing. It is therefore not all that unsurprising when our respondents prioritized material acquisitions over sentiments as what was most desired out of a marriage. Being married allows the young adults to move out of parental homes or from dormitories for single adults provided by employers. The duality of incomes also provides an opportunity to acquire material consumer goods, which may not be possible with a single income. Nevertheless, everything must be new when Chinese marry, symbolizing the beginning of a new family.

Answers to the second question clearly indicate that new couples seek to quickly establish a comfortable home with modern appliances and entertainment facilities. While Western couples may consider exotic honeymoons or other experiential services, Chinese newly weds are focused on purchasing consumer products that are expected to enhance one’s comfort and lifestyle. This suggestion is further supported by responses to the second question where participants indicated that their highest purchasing priority was for furniture. That a significant number (n=10/24) indicated that purchasing clothes would be high priority is somewhat puzzling given that clothing items are plentiful and affordable in the PRC. It may be that respondents were thinking about higher-end, branded clothing items.

Traditional, gender-based expectations on the new couple’s establishment are not much respected nowadays. Previously, a dowry consisting of valuable jewelry, kitchen utensils, bridal linen such as sheets, pillowcases and clothes would have been sent early to the groom’s family. That both new spouses tend to contribute evenly to purchasing the new household’s appliances may be an expression of the modernization process that China has undergone since the early 1980s. However, some traditions remain: no grooms indicated that they would provide bedding items. All mentions of those items were made by the prospective brides. Further, seven female respondents indicated that their families would provide bedding linen. As can be read from the two testimonials introducing this study, such practices (e.g., bridal linen and clothes) were still existing as late as in the 1970s. Interestingly, no respondent of either gender indicated that they would contribute the bed. Traditionally, the bride’s family would never provide the new bed since "if the bride supplies the bridal bed, then the family is practically giving her away for free," as a popular saying goes. Also particular to gift giving in Asia, most new couples expect to receive gifts of cash.

Ownership intentions of foreign or domestic brands of consumer products are mixed, supporting Goll’s (1995) observation that "85% of the consumers surveyed said they feel Chinese products are just as good as foreign ones." This may surprise some marketers who assume that Chinese automatically prefer foreign to domestic brands (Goll 1995).

Altogether, we observe a blend of traditions and of modernism in new couples gift intentions and expectations. While love will hopefully blossom from the marriage it is certainly not its initiating stimulus. Matching would seem to be a fairer description and spouses are looking forward to material before emotional and/or sentimental comfort, pleasure and satisfaction.

Modernization seems to have also made significant inroads in marriage ceremonies as Western and Chinese styles will be present. To reflect Chinese people’s increasing consumption power, many couples will host guests in hotels and restaurants, supporting fresh evidence (Beijing Youth Daily, October 19, 2001) of the renewal of traditional practices that had to be abandoned during the revolutionary times, as exemplified in the introduction. Spending on entertaining guests several times one’s monthly income reflects the family and social importance of marriage to Chinese, a re-emerging traditional value. The figures derived from this research match recent publications (Beijing Youth daily, October 19, 2001). Entertaining guests and family members is an opportunity for the young couple to gain face and develop Guan Xi, a network of individuals who will contribute to each other’s personal and professional growth through the giving and receiving of favors, services, etc. It would be interesting to examine the social networking implications of marriage ceremonies in China and compare how they converge and differ from ceremonies in Western countries.

In summary, this research points out to the cultural melting pot that China may have become. While public demonstrations or attachments to traditions was sometimes severely indexed during the peak of the revolutionary times, some traditions have waned while others have survived. Gift giving in a wedding context is certainly an expression of these changes, incorporating modern, often Western characteristics into memorial practices to give the event a truly unique flavor, not unlike Modern China.

While this study suffers from the common limitations, such as a small sample size and not all scientific data gathering methods, its aim was not to pretend to describe the phenomenon of gift giving across China and all classes of Chinese consumers. Rather we aimed to give a peek at what some urban, better educated, middle class Chinese consumers expect from their marriage, in terms of material priorities, as well as from their close ones in terms of received gifts.


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Francis Piron, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Hong Xia Zhang, Peking University, China


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2002

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