Title: Taiwanese Engagement Feasts: A Marriage of Old and New Customs
Location: Luodong, Taiwan
In Taiwan, the wedding engagement feast, or dinghuncan, is a tradition stretching far back into Taiwan’s cultural history. There is a long list of customs and rules that are followed in preparation for the big day, and the engagement feast plays a major role in having a proper traditional marriage. However, like many traditions, the engagement feast has changed in recent years with outside influences. New customs are marrying with the old in ways that produce an entirely different looking wedding tradition than in the past. Understanding the rituals involved in Chinese engagement feasts can give a glimpse into Taiwan’s cultural heritage, and also reveals some interesting facts about the role of rituals in Chinese people’s lives.
This weekend was a very fun experience for me. I got to attend a Taiwanese wedding engagement feast! While I learned a lot about very traditional customs, like the bride and groom exchanging gold jewelry, and the use of red as a lucky color, I also got to witness how these customs are changing due to outside influences. For example, while serving a “lucky menu” of traditional dishes, which are given special titles and lucky names like “lucky and energetic steamed fish in a joyful and hopeful salad”, is something that has stuck around for a long time, the new tradition of taking elaborate engagement photos is a recent cultural arrival brought in from the West. While at this engagement feast, I was able to see this marriage—pun intended—of the traditional and the new, and learned a lot about the cultural meanings behind different traditions surrounding the business of getting married in Taiwan.
What tradition did I learn about?:
The customs involved in a Taiwanese engagement feast! Below, I describe my experiences as a foreign guest at a couple’s pre-wedding banquet.
We entered the great dining hall about five minutes early, arriving with a crush of other guests. My teacher’s husband was out of town for the day, and I was standing in as her date for the engagement feast. In addition to experiencing a Taiwanese tradition first hand, I was also excited about being able to practice Chinese all day, as my teacher can’t speak any English.
“Kenton,” she said to me in Chinese, “see how everyone is lined up to go inside? Well, they are signing the guest book and are looking around the main hall, which has photos of the couple and is decorated in red and gold, the lucky colors for a wedding.”
Traditionally, red is the color in Chinese culture that stands for luck and happiness. So, Chinese brides usually wear red gowns and decorate with red colors for their wedding celebrations. Red is the preferred color for pretty much all of the wedding stuff from the wedding invitations, the envelopes with money given to the bride and groom by their relatives, and the bride’s bouquet to the wedding dress itself, red represents the wealth and happiness the couple hopes for their future life together.
Gold is also a very important color for a wedding, and symbolizes wealth and importance. Gold jewelry plays a huge role in Taiwanese wedding customs. When a couple gets engaged, the man sends the woman a set of gold jewelry as a wedding gift. Traditionally, this set is made up of a necklace, two bracelets, a pair of earrings, and a ring. The bride gives the room gold jewelry as well—a ring and a necklace. As in Western culture, the couple exchanges gold rings as an agreement to wed (though unlike Americans, Taiwanese people very rarely wear their wedding bands in public). During the wedding, the bride wears all of the gold jewelry the groom has given her as a sign of the wealth of the groom’s family and their love for their future daughter-in-law.
I told my teacher how pretty the red and gold colors looked together, and explained how American brides usually wear white to their weddings. “Oh,” my teacher said, “while red and gold are very lucky colors, don’t ever wear white to a Chinese wedding—white is the color of death in Chinese culture, and it would be very unlucky for the future couple!” I made sure to make a note of this.
Sure enough, when it was our turn to enter the building, I saw a room decorated in red and gold, with a large table in the center featuring engagement photos of the couple. “In Taiwan,” my teacher said, “a pretty new custom is making small photos of the couple with the dates typed on the back to give out to guests. This custom is from American influence in the country.” My teacher gave me a few of the photos—one was of the future bride and groom holding hands in their wedding outfits, another was of the bride posing in front of a famous museum in Taipei, and the other was of the couple in casual clothes sitting together in a beautiful garden.
In the corner was a huge stack of big red boxes. They had the word “fu”, which means “happiness” and “luck” decorated on them. I asked my teacher what they were.
“Oh, those are the wedding cookies! After the feast, it is the bride and groom’s responsibility to hand out those boxes of cookies to the guests as they leave,” my teacher explained.
Apparently, wedding cookies are serious business in Taiwan. One box can cost anywhere from 300-3000NTD ($10-100USD), and a wedding can have a few hundred guests! People spend a lot of money on weddings in Taiwan. Photos can cost up to $10,000 USD, and that is before the wedding is held! The cookie boxes given out at this engagement feast contained one huge cookie stuffed with red bean paste (again with “fu” written on it), along with several bags of smaller cookies.
After giving the cookies a very longing look, I made my way up the stairs to the banquet hall, where my teacher and I were assigned a table. We were to sit at that table for the entirety of the meal and socialize with the other people sitting with us. The banquet hall, too, was decorated in red and gold. A projector in the center of the room played a video on the main wall that showed photos of the couple in various stages of their lives, with cute captions underneath. A huge, golden “fu” was hung on the main wall as well, and the tables were decorated in red and gold as well.
We made our way to one of the two dozen or so tables in the giant room, and sat down. Wine and juice was already placed at the table, and so were several older gentlemen, a young unmarried couple, and a much older Taiwanese man. It is common courtesy in Chinese culture to keep a guest—especially a foreigner—well supplied with food and drink. As a welcoming gesture, they also served me first when each dish came.
Looking at the menu, I saw about twelve dishes total, each with a very unique and lucky-sounding name. Sometimes it was difficult to tell what a dish was from the name—“seafood garden of joy and peace” was actually a plate of crabs marinated in curry and served with sugared black beans, which I would never have been able to guess from the name! There were many very traditional dishes served—like steamed fish, abalone and sashimi (because Taiwan is an island and food is heavily reliant on fishing) and a soup called “Buddha jumps over the wall.” It’s an expensive traditional soup made with all delicious ingredients, and the name means that the soup is so good, Buddha would climb over a wall to get it!
Dish after dish was served, and we ate our fill. My teacher explained to me that the goal of a Chinese feast was to have a lot of leftover food. “Leftovers symbolize the wealth a family has, and the wealth they hope to get,” my teacher explained. “If there aren’t any leftovers, it’s a little shameful—it’s as if you cannot afford to satisfy your guests. Leaving a guest hungry is one of the biggest social missteps you can make,” she said. If you are ever invited to a Chinese person’s house for dinner, make sure you don’t eat all the food! Unlike in America, where it is seen as a sign that the food is tasty and delicious, in Chinese societies, it reflects badly on the people who are feeding you!
During the meal, the future married couple and their parents came to each and every one of the tables in the banquet hall and toasted us, thanking us for being there. In return, everyone told them “gong xi” or “congratulations!” and gave them wishes for a successful future and a happy home. Many times during feasts and celebrations, especially during weddings, someone will say, “gan bei!” which literally means “dry cup.” This means everyone has to drink their drink down to the last drop. There were a lot of “gan bei” toasts made that day, but I made sure that there was tea in my cup instead of wine!
After the meal, we filed out of the large dining hall to my teacher’s car in the parking lot. On the way out, the future bride and groom handed out the big red boxes with “fu” on them, and I got a big red packet of “lucky rice,” which symbolizes wealth, good fortune, and is a good luck charm that the bride and groom will always have food to eat on their table. Sitting in my teacher’s car on the way home, I enjoyed a lucky cookie, and thought about the amazing things I was able to learn and see during the day.
Why does the community have this tradition?
The biggest thing I was able to take away from my experience of the engagement feast was the effect that history often has in our present day lives, especially when it comes to culture and tradition. It is important in a Taiwanese wedding to represent the ideas of wealth, happiness, and good luck, as was shown by the decorations, the rituals of feasting and toasting, and the wedding gifts given out at the end of the feast. These values did not just appear out of thin air!
Is this tradition connected to the environment? How?
Historically speaking, rituals were ways people dealt with uncertainty in their lives, and were ways of giving meaning to the ties human beings created with each other. Before Taiwan developed to have a good health care system, good transportation, and reliable agriculture, people had to worry a lot about disease and feeding themselves on a daily basis. The symbols and rituals surrounding creating luck during a wedding was a way people dealt with this uncertainty, and made people feel a measure of control in their lives. It was also a way to give meaning to the joining of two families in marriage, and was a pledge two people made to take care of each other in difficult and uncertain times.
Today, while food and healthcare are much easier to come by, people in Taiwan still practice these rituals as a way to remember the past and bring a sense of honor and legitimacy to the bond they are making with each other by getting married. I feel very lucky to have learned so much that day, and to have done my part in toasting and celebrating the future marriage of the happy couple!