updated 9 Feb 2012, 20:50
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Thu, Jan 26, 2012
China Daily/Asia News Network
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Blast from the past for big day

BEIJING - Dressed in ancient official robes and wearing chaplets, the groom and bride exchanged jade pendants as symbols of their marriage instead of rings in a silk-curtained lounge. The sophisticated formalities went smoothly to the sounds of a zither. The only nod in the direction of the modern age was an LED screen.

In China, the phrase "old is gold" is best exemplified by the growing popularity of vintage weddings. Wedding planning companies are delving into the rich legacy of the past to revive typical Han or Tang weddings with the aid of modern techniques.

"Vintage Chinese weddings are not only a trigger to revive our own traditional customs but also a trendy form for the big ceremony because Chinese people are getting tired of common Western-style weddings," said Shi Yu, deputy director-general of the Committee of Wedding Service Industries.

As 2012 is the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese zodiac and there are two Beginnings of Spring according to the Chinese lunar terms, it is believed to be a very auspicious year for marriage. In recent years, due to demographic changes, more couples have been marrying. The latest data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs showed 12.41 million couples got married in 2010, 30 per cent higher than 2006 and 2 per cent higher than 2009.

"A vintage Chinese wedding renders a solemn mood to the sacred ceremony. What we are doing is to revive the long-lost beauty of Chinese wedding customs," said Ren Guanyu, founder of Hanyifang, one of the earliest vintage wedding service companies in Beijing.

A vintage wedding, also known as a Han Tang ceremony, draws on marriage rituals from the Han or Tang dynasties, with the observance originating from the Western and Eastern Zhou dynasties (circa 11th century-256 BC).

The Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) were among the richest for Chinese culture.

A vintage wedding served by a small new company such as Hanyifang costs at least 20,000 yuan (S$3,900).

"The price is relatively low in terms of the quality and effect of the wedding because it is still new in spite of its old look. We are still cultivating our market," said Ren.

No national figures are available on spending, but the Committee of Wedding Service Industries estimates that average expenditure on a wedding in large cities is between 120,000 yuan and 200,000 yuan - and the figure keeps growing.

Xiqingtang, a high-end wedding company established in 2004, has gradually shifted its focus to vintage wedding services in recent years. The income from vintage weddings contributed to 9.2 per cent of the company's revenue in 2010 and 13.2 per cent in 2011.

"We've seen an increasing demand in the Han Tang weddings, especially in our flagship store at Wangfujing (Beijing). Some of the cases are mixed marriages. Foreigners prefer a Chinese-style wedding celebrated in China," said Zhang Lei, general manager of Xiqingtang.

In China , Western-style weddings feature flowers prominently, while Chinese weddings focus on people.

Because vintage weddings are getting more luxurious and regal, customers have to pay much more for serving maids and imperial guards at the ceremony, said Zhang.

"The pace of life in China today does not allow for a three-day wedding any more, so we have to finish the ceremony within a day or even a few hours," said Ren.

That is why only classical elements of the original ritual remain in demonstrations of these companies' services. For example, the couple has to eat meat from the same livestock and drink wine contained from the ladle made from the same dried gourd, which means they have to share everything henceforth.

They both have to cut a strand of hair and put it in a small silk bag. This will become one of the burial objects in their joint tomb after their deaths.

To capture the solemnity and grace of the occasion, the groom and bride have to receive special training right up to the start of the ceremony.

This includes learning how to adopt the correct facial expressions, gestures and postures.

According to Ren, weddings in ancient times were part of the Chinese ancestor worship ceremony. The groom has to first tell his ancestor that a member from a different family is going to get involved.

Ren said in ancient times, the groom has to send a wild goose as a gift when he goes to the bride's home to escort her. This is because in legendary Chinese tradition, a wild goose is believed to have only one spouse all its life.

Wang Yiqiu, a 30-year-old television anchorwoman, had a splendid Han-style wedding in September. Given Wang and her husband both appreciated the elegance of traditional Chinese culture, they decided on a vintage ceremony.

"I will only marry once in my life so I wanted it to be extraordinary. A common Western-style wedding is far from what we wanted," she said. "We got great feedback from my guests at the ceremony. Even months after the wedding, they still frequently mention it, saying 'Darling, it was like a great drama'."

Most of the customers are well educated. More than 50 per cent are overseas returnees who do not blindly worship Western customs and have a good understanding of their own culture, said Ren.

However, the biggest challenge for vintage weddings comes from the parents.

"They've got used to Western suits and wedding dresses and they think vintage weddings are odd and ridiculous," said Ren.

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