Difference is greater than ever: politics and weddings in China

A couple getting married in Changsha, China

Politics and weddings aren’t necessarily two words that you would put together. Though, as of last year, local officials in China hit the headlines as they were fined for hosting lavish wedding banquets – a Beijing village official’s position was removed after hosting a wedding banquet that cost 1.6m Yuan. This comes at a time where fighting corruption is at the core of Xi’s strategy. ‘He has vowed to crack down on both “tigers” and “flies” – powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats’. His campaign involves banning extravagant displays of wealth, such as expensive flower arrangements, and elaborate red-carpet ceremonies for local officials .

This debate over the public display of wealth in wedding ceremonies is not new. During the Maoist era, lavish weddings held as big family affairs were viewed as wasteful, greedy and immoral. The union of two individuals should not be bound by money – as it functioned as a measurement which allowed for inequality, and ultimately had to be removed. The irony  is that social distinction could not be removed completely, and now Xi is dealing with the excesses caused by Deng Xiaoping’s’ conviction that ‘to get rich is glorious’.

In a collective society like China, attending wedding banquets is a must, to give face (mianzi) and pay respect to those in your social circle. These are large social affairs, in which the bride and groom come together for the ‘collective’ (dajia) to witness their union. It is this performance that constitutes the cultural recognition of marriage, as opposed to the process of obtaining a marriage certificate.  For the rising middle class, and newly rich, these are important events for networking and ‘pulling’ social connections (la guanxi). Guests offer red pockets (hongbao) of money to the couple, and at many high-profile weddings such gifts amount to bribes. The guests can number up to a thousand at these kinds of weddings, and they look forward to a programme of lively entertainment and luxurious food.  These weddings are more like shows in which families flaunt their wealth and power. And for this reason, Xi is restricting the number of guests that are invited, allowing 30 tables maximum . These lavish performances offer a glimpse of how the rising middle class and rich are bonding in China.

But take a trip back roughly sixty years to the Maoist era, and weddings would present a completely different picture. Weddings were all the same – equality was the guiding principle. Brides and grooms acted as models for socialist change. During my anthropology master’s fieldwork, I spent five weeks in Changsha last May observing wedding ceremonies and interviewing wedding photographers, planners, and presenters. One my informants, a wedding planner, told me about her grandparents’ wedding, and the only gifts offered were peanuts and sweets. In her perception this was because China had  a two thousand-year history of being poor. No gifts of money were offered, because it was believed that this would produce social distinctions. However, this equality was an illusion, and social distinctions did exist, the leaders of the party living glamorous lives whilst millions through many years of poverty and scarcity.

The memory of poverty and scarcity still remains, and many Chinese place great importance on gathering and maintaining wealth. Deng Xiaoping’s reign encouraged the ‘get rich mentality’, he stated that those who get rich first should be models to be emulated, the first to experience future prosperity and not targets of class resentment. They were the sign of the prosperity to come. But as people are getting richer, they do not know what to do with their money other than spend, consume, and publicly display their wealth. This is presented clearly through wedding consumption.

The wedding industry in China, only established over ten years, is growing rapidly. Walk down the streets of Changsha in the summer and you see a line of wedding stalls of promoting their services. Couples place the fate of their wedding day in the hands of wedding planning companies – they promise to secure you the venue, filming, and wedding presenters. Their aim is to make the couple’s wedding ceremony as much of a show as possible. The trend for the rising middle class is to be as extravagant as possible, and personalising your wedding banquet to tell the audience a story of how you met is popular too. One particular example stands out; a leading wedding planner in Changsha told me about how one of her customers requested  that the bride fly down like an angel onto the stage, apparently inspired by an American TV show.

The commodities presented at wedding ceremonies – the dress, jewellery, and food and drink – tell the audience who you are and what kind of lifestyle you lead. A young chatty wedding photographer I met told me he regularly dealt with rich clients who spent huge sums of money on wedding photography. On this subject he informed me ‘there is no such thing as a class system in China  – it’s not like what you have in the West.’ Though he later explained that in China, there are different strata (jieceng) and that these are dependent on wealth as opposed to culture. There is a notable difference in the quality and type of commodities offered at different types of wedding banquets. A local wedding I attended in a town outside Changsha was a very public affair in which anyone could participate. An array of treats was laid out for guests, including assorted locally-produced chocolates  and a bottle of sherry written in a peculiar mixture of Spanish and Italian, clearly attempting to disguise itself as an expensive luxury product. On the other hand, the high-profile wedding I attended in Changsha from an invite from the wedding photographer was a private affair- it was ticket entry only. Rather embarrassingly they were wary of foreigners and extra observers in the current political climate and I got kicked out. Expensive flower decorations dangled from the ceiling, and prestigious Western commodities like Ferrero Roches and luxury wine were served at the tables.

Many Chinese look to the West as a place of economic abundance, and the popularity of Western wedding traditions reflects this. A ‘Western’ wedding is favoured over a traditional Chinese one, which is a more expensive option involving lengthy rituals requiring a high number of staff. Wedding photography is popular, a trend that took off in Taiwan first, and has since made it  way to the Mainland China. Photos are taken in in the far-flung corners of China in an attempt to create a backdrop similar to a European landscape, something which the photographer informed me involves considerable technical and logistical challenges. Couples make an extra effort bearing the heat to have these photographs taken.  Wedding albums are ordered to show to the couple’s parent’s relatives and friends, part of the displaying of wealth to others. This contrasts with the experience of older generations who lived under scarcity, and did not have anything like this to show to others. This act of emulating the West can seem a bit over-the-top; one wedding ceremony I attended had a projection of a Church altar at the centre of the stage for decoration. This was very strange indeed, combined with the upbeat Taylor Swift song playing in the background. It seems that anything will do, as long as it is Western. The artificial nature of these practices reflects a greater issue: a loss of tradition and subsequently admiration of the West.

Weddings offers us an interesting lens through which to observe the political changes of the last 60 years, particularly in terms of how individuals in China choose to reveal an aspect of their lives to their circle. Consumption is growing in China, and is shaping every aspect of people’s lives,and people have an ever-greater choice of products and services. Marx had never predicted that so many people would enjoy the fruits of capitalism – that people would love the activites of shopping for, indulging in, and fetishizing commodities. Wedding consumption in China demonstrates this, as couples express their individuality by tailoring their wedding ceremonies to suit themselves. At the same time, it is the rising middle class and rich that can afford to spend lavishly, and wedding banquets in rural areas may well present a different picture. China’s next challenge is to deal with its huge social inequality, and the public eye is watching closely.

Standard