The Many Meanings of Marriage: Centuries-Old Wisdom 

May 14, 2021 Updated: May 20, 2021

So that they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. —Matthew 19:6 

Since biblical times, we’ve been searching for our other halves, wanting to ride into the sunset with our one true love, and marrying the love of our life. But marriage traditions through the ages have ranged from joyous to somber. Some ancient wedding traditions emphasized the challenges that awaited newlyweds and the loss of moving away from their families. If one word could capture the universal ideal of marriage success, it’s probably “harmony,” beginning with the story of our first ancestors.

And the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” —Genesis 2:18

According to the Hebrew Bible, all of humankind descended from Adam and Eve. God felt that Adam needed a partner and created Eve by taking her from Adam’s rib. Thus, the first couple in the world was formed. 

Eve was born to nurture and accompany Adam, and in exchange, Adam vowed to protect and provide for her. They were two sides of the same coin—born of the same body, and through God’s blessed union, once again brought together as one in order to be fruitful.

two geese
A pair of geese take shelter among reeds during adverse weather. During the end of the Song Dynasty, this kind of painting symbolized the couple who suffered together and still loved each other. (Courtesy of the National Palace Museum)

The True Meaning of Marriage

In ancient China, it was said that unmarried men and women were incomplete. Only after they found their other half and were wedded were they considered whole. According to the “Yili Zhushu,” a text from the pre-Han Dynasty, “father and son, man and wife, [and] brothers are one body as well.” This passage illustrates the importance that was placed on marriage in ancient China. While brothers and fathers and sons are bonded by blood, husbands and wives are connected only by love and loyalty. 

In “The Book of Rites,” Confucius says, “From the distinction between man and woman came the righteousness between husband and wife.” Similar to biblical beliefs, people in ancient China thought that men and women had different responsibilities. The husband was expected to provide for his wife and family, while the wife was supposed to take care of household duties. This exchange of responsibilities resulted in a mutual understanding and respect, which the ancients referred to as “righteousness.” 

Marriage was an important foundation of society in ancient China, and often played an important role in clan organization and politics. But the main purpose of marriage was to raise children to become upstanding members of society and pass down each family’s heritage. As “The Book of Rites” says: “The ceremony of marriage was intended to be a bond of love between two [(families of different]) surnames, with a view, in its retrospective character, to secure the services in the ancestral temple, and in its prospective character, to secure the continuance of the family line.

Ancient Rituals

Due to the sacred nature of the marriage bond in ancient China, there were strict rules of etiquette surrounding it. For a marriage to be considered valid, it must be approved by the couple’s parents. A marriage wasn’t only a union between the couple—it was a union between their two families. In fact, the parents often acted as matchmakers. Arranged marriages were very common. 

The courting process began with a matchmaker introducing the two people. It was considered improper for unmarried men and women to become closely acquainted with each other outside of formal matchmaking procedures. Once a match was made, the family needed to report news of the marriage to the monarch. A feast was then organized, and the entire village came together to celebrate the union of the new couple. 

The official proposal process involved the “six rites,” which originated in classical times. Since the Western Zhou Dynasty, it was mainly practiced among the elite. But in the Tang Dynasty, it spread widely among the common people. In order for a couple to be considered properly married, the rites had to be performed in order. 

Rites of Marriage
A newly wedded couple pays their respects in the wedding chapel. The three-step procedure involves first paying respect to the heavens, then to the groom’s parents, and finally to one another, sealing their status as husband and wife. (Public Domain)

The first step was for the man to propose with an accompanying gift. If the lady’s family chose to accept the proposal, they could proceed to the second rite, which was “inquiring into the lady’s name and birthday.” This was done to make sure the couple didn’t have any blood relatives. Third was “the intimation of the approving divination,” which ensured that the union would be a balanced match. The fourth rite involved the husband making offerings to the lady’s family, and the fifth was inquiring about the date of the wedding. Finally, the six rites conclude with the groom and bride meeting in person. 

Qing version of qingming
The Qing Dynasty version of “Up the River During Qingming,” a handscroll painting depicting a groom going to the bride’s home to escort her to their wedding. (Courtesy of the National Palace Museum)
Qingming_in_Brief
The Song Dynasty version of the same scene. (Courtesy of the National Palace Museum)
Up the River-ming
“Up the River During Qingming” from the Ming Dynasty. (Courtesy of the National Palace Museum)

A Solemn Affair

Nowadays, wedding ceremonies are seen as celebrations and are often treated like a big party. However, during certain periods and places, such as China’s Zhou Dynasty, they were solemn, serious affairs. As “The Book of Rites” recounts: “At the marriage ceremony, they did not employ music, having reference to the feeling of solitariness and darkness [natural to the separation from parents]. … There was no congratulation on marriage; it indicates how [one generation of] men succeeds to another.” This sentiment was present in the bleak wedding ceremonies of the Western Zhou Dynasty, which had no music, words of congratulation, food, or drinks. 

Zhou Dynasty wedding attire
Zhou Dynasty wedding attire for the groom (left) and the bride (right). (Manuel Alejandro Hung/PxHere)

After the wedding ceremony, the bride’s family wasn’t allowed to light candles for three nights, so as to show their sadness over their daughter’s parting. At the groom’s home, music, singing, and dancing was banned for three days to demonstrate that he was a serious man who could handle the responsibility of raising a family. 

There were also many traditions that took place during the couple’s first night under the same roof. To symbolize the start of their new life as husband and wife, the two drank together from a calabash, or gourd. The gourd was broken into two pieces, and each half was filled with wine. A string was used to tie the two halves together, conveying that though the couple used to be apart, fate had brought them together. The gourd and wine typically have a bitter taste, which signified future hardships the couple would face. A common tradition throughout China was for the husband and wife to each cut off a lock of hair and tie them together to symbolize unity and an eternal bond.

drinking gourds for wedding
A white jade gourd ladle from the Mogul Empire. In ancient times, the bride and groom would drink from a gourd ladle, symbolizing that they would share the burden of any difficulties that might lie ahead. (Courtesy of The National Palace Museum)

While the marriage process has changed drastically over the centuries, a person’s wedding day remains one of life’s most important moments. Now that the world has placed so much emphasis on the individual and has splintered into thousands of subcultures, finding two people who both agree on the meaning and function of marriage is becoming rare. But the hope remains universal that, God willing, each of us will find our one perfect match and walk arm in arm for the rest of our lives. 

Translated into English by Angela Feng.