A Shanghai Wedding

On Saturday January 25th Guoliang & Xián are married. And by that I mean that they are already legally married, as marriage in China is sealed with a government license and nothing else. On the previous day their marriage was registered with the state, and thus legal everywhere.

But today is the day for the pubic marriage, the celebration, the ritual, the pomp and tradition.

First comes tradition. We gather outside Xián’s hotel suite just before noon. She is hidden deep inside the suite, protected from her suitor by a phalanx of female relatives. Guoliang needs to convince every one of these skeptical women that he is worthy to care for their kin.

the suitor / shanghai, china

Holding a bouquet of flowers (and with Americans in tow), Guoliang knocks on the hotel door. From inside a voice screeches in Chinese “Who is it?  What do you want? Go away!”1

Laughing, Guoliang responds “I am Guoliang Chen and I am here to marry Xián Liú.”

“Why should you be allowed to marry our dear and beautiful Xián?”

“Because I am a hard worker and a good provider, and I will give her many sons!”

There is more back-and-forth for which I will not make up further dialog, and eventually Guoliang wins the approval to enter.

The door opens to a room filled with laughing relatives, but Xián is still not visible, being cloistered in the inner room of the hotel suite.  Guoliang had more trials before he will win her hand.

He makes his way to the door of the inner bedroom and knocks.  From inside comes the voice of a little girl “What do you want?”

And again, “I am Guoliang Chen and I am here to marry Xián Liú.”

“Oh!” she says through the door, “My auntie does not have time for frivolous suitors.  Please come back when you are more serious.”

Nodding in understanding, Guoliang hands a red envelope to his best man, who kneels down and pushes it beneath the door. There is a moment of silence, and then the little girl speaks again.  “Really?  Is this the best you can do for my beautiful auntie?  This is barely enough to buy a pair of shoes.  Come back when you are earning a real salary.”

sweetening the pot / shanghai, china

Two more red envelopes emerge from Guoliang’s suit coat and passed beneath the door. This time the silence is longer. Then the door cracks open, and a ten-year-old looks Guoliang up and down. “Hmph!” she says, “I think my auntie could do better.” But she opens the door. Inside is  Xián, sitting on the bed, smiling and looking beautiful in her sequined white wedding dress.

the bride / shanghai, china

Guoliang makes his way into the room, formally introducing himself to his bride’s parents and her inner circle of relatives. And then, bouquet in hand, he falls to one knee before his bride and asks her to accept his hand in marriage.

the proposal / shanghai, china

Laughing, Xián accepts the proposal immediately, and Guoliang pulls a ring from his coat, placing it on her finger. He asks her to join him for a banquet to celebrate their marriage. She takes his hand and stands up from the bed, but her mother cries out “Not so fast!”

“You cannot go to your wedding banquet in your house slippers!” says Xián’s mother. “But you have lost your shoes! Maybe this shiny new husband can find them for you?” And this sets Guoliang and his best man scrambling around the room, looking behind curtains, under the bed, below chairs, and in closets for the missing shoes. After some searching they are found beneath the pillows on Xián’s bed.

After some more teasing in which Guoliang is asked to wear the shoes against his head like horns, Xián’s mother takes them from him and gently places them onto her daughter’s feet.  Xián rises from the bed, and mother and daughter embrace.

shoe horns / shanghai, china

Everyone goes out to the outer room, where a number of plates of fruits and nuts have been laid out on a coffee table. Xián’s parents sit down before these dishes, and the couple serves the parents glasses of tea. They take a sip, smiling, and then give the couple red envelopes, a gift to start them in their new lives.

serving of tea / shanghai, china

traditional snacks / shanghai, china

red envelopes / shanghai, china

Now the couple sits down before the food, and two bowls of sweet congee (rice porridge) are given to them. Xián feeds a spoonful to Guoliang, and then he feeds her. There is a fruit in her portion. She carefully chews the fruit, and then Guoliang holds out his hand and she delicately spits two seeds out into his palm. Like similar western ceremonies, this predicts the number of children that the couple will have.

sweet congee / shanghai, china

Later that evening we gather for the wedding banquet. Guoliang tells us to arrive at 5pm for a 5:30pm ceremony, and we arrive promptly at 5. We’re the first ones there, and the reception hall is still being set up.  We sit down at our assigned places and wait. A half-hour later we’re still the only ones sitting in the hall. Guoliang and Xián are having their photos taken outside.

There are photos of the happy couple being projected to one side of the room, and we watch them to pass the time. The photos are heavily staged, with Guoliang and Xián in costume and posed in elaborate sets, and there are so many of them. One shows them running through a field, and another shows Guoliang down on one knee, giving a small bouquet of daisies to Xián. There are period photos with the couple dressed as turn-of-the-century suitors, bicycling through the streets of Old Shanghai. It feels exceptionally surreal, a view into a life that never happened.

The guys decide that a short recess is in order, so Sorin, Danny, Bruce and I head out to find a bar.  (It doesn’t take long to find one, as the wedding is taking place next to a music school, and you know musicians.)  We spend the next hour drinking a beer and talking about Shanghai. When we return the wedding banquet has not yet begun, but there are more people in attendance. There are also many plates of food on the table, but no one is eating it. Someone has also put a single bright communist red and gold pack of cigarettes on the table. For we non-smoking Americans, this more of a souvenir than an aperitif, and Bobby quickly slips it into his Chanel purse.

communist cigarettes / shanghai, china

Sorin makes the observation that we’re the only guests who’ve dressed up for the wedding. Everyone else is dressed nicely, but no one outside the wedding party is wearing a suit or tie. We learn later that this is so as to not out-shine the bride and groom.  Whoops.

Suddenly the lights dim and the conversations get quieter. Directly behind our table, a hotel staffer fires up both a cigarette and a spotlight.  He sweeps the room with his beam of light while blanketing our table with smoke.  (To be fair, the copious amounts of cigarette smoke he’s emitting makes the spotlight even more dramatic.) Across the room another smoker-operated spotlight is also working the room.

the wedding banquet / shanghai, china

A large man wearing white gloves climbs onto the stage at the front of the room.  He’s to be our M.C. for the evening, and he begins by introducing the wedding party. Guoliang & Xián enter, and are introduced as the newly married couple.  There is applause, and then Guoliang turns to Xián and kisses her.

The kiss continues for a long, long time.  The room hushes, and from our table I can clearly see that there is a considerable french aspect to the kiss. When the kiss ends, Sorin whispers to me ’20 seconds!’ He is clearly impressed, and for good reason.  Try wiggling your tongue around for 20 seconds… it’s a lot of work.

The couple sits down and we begin to eat.  Dish after dish is brought to the table, often more than we can consume, with plates being stacked atop other, half-finished dishes. The meal continues until we leave, with new dishes always being brought to the table.

There are toasts, congratulations, and speeches. (Our table includes a Chinese-American friend of Guoliang’s who can translate, so we get the gist of everything.) At one point the Master of Ceremonies puts Guoliang on the spot, asking him personal questions about their relationship and marriage.

The question that I remember is “Will your wife stay in China or return the the USA with you?” In the United States, that wouldn’t be a question… of course newlyweds will live together. But apparently in China it’s considered somewhat normal for newly-married couples to live apart, separated by immigration issues.  Guoliang tactfully answers “Xián will stay in China for now, but we hope she will join me soon.”

As Guoliang and Xián work the room, going from table to table thanking guests for coming to the wedding banquet, I keep glancing towards Xián’s girlfriend. She’s here, sitting at a different table, watching her spouse marry someone else.  When I asked her earlier how she felt about it, she just shrugged “It is necessary.”

I came to Shanghai thinking that I would be attending a campy event, a slapstick marriage between a gay man and a lesbian, with hijinks and cocktails.  But that is not what this is. Guoliang has put himself entirely into this.  It’s not a joke to him, it’s honor towards his parents, doing his best to be a good son. This is a hunzuo hunyin, a ‘cooperative marriage‘, but Guoliang and Xián are method acting, becoming the roles that their society wants them to play.

It’s painful for me to watch. I wonder how Guoliang can do this without being torn in two. Two men… one a devoted husband to Xián, the other a happily gay man in San Francisco. When American men had to live this way in the 1950’s, it resulted in unhappy marriages, divorce, and alcoholism. American men no longer have to live like this, but Guoliang does whenever he’s around non-gay Chinese people. (He told me earlier “If one Chinese person knows, all of China will know.”)

But Guoliang is already a split person, an immigrant living between two cultures. Maybe he can manage these divisions. Just before we leave, Guoliang comes to our table. He leans in close to our group, smiles, and asks “Did you enjoy the show?”


  1. Here I am liberally translating from what I thought was said.  I feel confident that I am in the right ballpark, based on my extensive knowledge of human mating rituals and the abundant amount of laughter involved.

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