In late September, Sheng Zuxing and her fiance Zhang Ping married in front of about 60 guests in Tianjin, a port city southeast of Beijing.
Like many Western weddings, Sheng wore a flowing white gown, had a ring bearer and a bridesmaid, and hired a wedding planner — traditions that a decade ago, were mostly unseen in the Middle Kingdom.
The couple also incorporated traditional Chinese elements, such as receiving hongbao (red envelopes filled with money) from guests, setting off firecrackers as they arrived at the wedding venue. They kept another very popular traditional element — not allowing the groom to see his bride until he gave “bribes” to the bride’s relatives, and answered questions from her such as where they first met and where they ate their first meal together.
“Life is only once and everybody wants to have a good memory,” Sheng, 28, said. “Getting married is a big deal, so it’s OK to spend a little money and take many photos.”
Sheng and Zhang represent a new era for China’s wedding industry as many younger individuals in the rising middle and wealthy classes opt for these fusion weddings. The most popular option is to mix traditional Chinese elements with Western trends, complete with fat budgets, choreographed photo sessions and lavish banquet dinners.
“Every bride in China wants to walk down an aisle in a white dress,” said Raul Vasquez, president of Weddings Beautiful China, a wedding-planning business based in Beijing. “Brides are inspired by what they see in the West.”
Getting married is a big deal, so it’s OK to spend a little money.
According to analysis from China Wedding Industry Development Report, couples now spend an average of 76,141 yuan ($12,000) per wedding in China. Putting that into perspective, the national average annual wage for urban employees was 56,339 yuan ($8,900) in 2014, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
Experts estimate the wedding industry brings in annual revenues of $80bn, up from $57bn in 2011, a staggering 40% increase over four years. Research firm IBIS World estimates that half of couples who marry in China now use some kind of wedding service.
What’s more, China has put its own mark on some Western traditions, such as the photo shoot. Unlike Western weddings, where brides and grooms take pictures on the day of the wedding, it’s popular for couples in China to pay for day-long photo sessions — sometimes in different countries — prior to the ceremony.
While some opt for studio sessions with rented outfits, where backdrops range from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to yachts, others prefer outdoor locales, such as Temple of Heaven, a park with traditional Chinese architecture in Beijing, or Thames Town, a mock English town filled with Tudor architecture outside Shanghai.
About two months before their wedding, Sheng and Zhang spent 5,000 yuan ($790), taking photos in five different outfits with backdrops of a yacht, the beach and outdoors in parks. They then used several of the photos to send their wedding invitation via WeChat, a popular social media app, set to romantic music.
Day-long photo sessions are popular prior to the ceremony. (Credit: Weddings by Ling)
It’s popular for couples in China to pay for day-long photo sessions — sometimes in different countries — prior to the ceremony. (Credit: Weddings by Ling)
Weddings Beautiful China, which started in 2011, now has 350 wedding planners in its network across 39 cities in China, and Vasquez said the average wedding budget for their clients is 200,000 yuan ($31,600). Their clients are typically in their twenties, wealthy couples who are white collar workers and often based in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Its Chinese partner, boutique wedding planning company Weddings by Ling, which started in 2009, has planned lavish affairs for Chinese celebrities including actress Chen Shu’s 200-guest affair at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Beijing plus a 20-person wedding in Bali.
The average budget for Ling’s weddings total 350,000 to 400,000 yuan (about $55,000 to $63,000).
Brides are inspired by what they see in the West.
“I realised many brides were not content with the style and service many of the wedding planning agencies in Chinese cities were providing to them, said Ling Ying, who studied wedding planning in the US. “This is one of the most important days for a woman in her life, so they should have access to quality wedding planners that can plan a wedding they will remember for a lifetime.”
Last year, Ling also planned a wedding for the daughter of one of China’s wealthiest individuals in Myanmar for 2,000 guests that was an international affair. Chinese designer Guo Pei designed the bridal party’s clothes, a floral designer from the Netherlands created flower arrangements that included 20,000 roses, hundreds of chandeliers and a stage for singers and dancers to perform on. Hong Kong photographer CM Leung was hired to capture the ceremony and events leading up to the day — including a photo shoot on the island of Fiji.
The wedding, which cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and took six months to plan, was a challenge, Ling said, because of logistics from different countries. “We were working 14 hour days, having two meetings a day to meet the suggestions of the couple,” she said.
While Western wedding traditions, such as having a bridal party, are working their way into Chinese ceremonies, there are still traditions that remain decidedly Chinese.
Instead of a gift list, Chinese couples prefer hongbao and venue availability doesn’t dictate wedding dates. Rather, Chinese couples will still choose an auspicious date — often by enlisting the help of a fortune-teller — regardless of if the day is a Monday or a Saturday.
The time of a wedding also differs; in northern China, most weddings are morning affairs that are done by noon, while south of Shanghai weddings tend to take place in the afternoon and evening. Sheng and Zhang’s wedding started at 10:58, a time that was good luck, and was done by 15:00.
Other up-and-coming trends in Chinese weddings include small, destination ceremonies, with Bali and Thailand being most popular, and cruise-ship weddings. Last year, Weddings Beautiful partnered with Royal Caribbean to design a Greco-Roman wedding chapel aboard luxury liner Mariner of the Seas, for couples to tie the knot while cruising.
The wedding planning industry has mushroomed, with more than 1,000 wedding planning companies registered in Beijing alone, according to China’s Committee of Wedding Service Industries. Weddings Beautiful China operates a training centre in the trendy Beijing neighbourhood of Sanlitun, offering 12-day wedding planner courses for about 21,000 yuan ($3,310).
As Sheng left the restaurant at her wedding, where her guests dined on plate after plate of fish, ribs, vegetables and soup, she wore her third dress of the day, a flowing red tulle skirt with a traditional qipao top. “I’m very happy,” she said as she looked at the new ring on her finger. “It was so beautiful.”