China’s culture is one of the oldest existing ones in the world, and it thus has wedding traditions that are ancient as well. The phrase “mass wedding” often conjures up images of stadiums filled to the brim with white-gowned brides and black-clad grooms as a wedding officiant pronounces them man and wife. Not all mass weddings subscribe to this hallmark of globalization, however. The ancient Chinese city of Xi’an recently hosted a dazzling, crimson-washed, Han-style mass wedding that recalled the practices of a dynasty that ruled most of eastern China over two thousand years ago.
The traditional take on the mass wedding concept took place on 1 May in the old imperial capital of the Han Dynasty, now the capital of Shaanxi province in central China. One hundred and thirty newlywed couples–comparatively few by mass wedding standards–celebrated their unions in a beautifully choreographed ritual wearing the same style of deep red, Han Dynasty-era costumes that their ancestors wore several millenia ago. With almost perfect symmetry and synchronicity, each couple took their place before their own fastidiously decorated altar, knelt, and held hands to show their commitment in much the same guise and manner as their cultural forebears did.
The ceremony reflects the rich heritage of this part of China, near the heartland of the Han culture. The city of Xi’an is more than three thousand, one hundred years old (by comparison, London is only about two thousand years old), and one of the four great capitals of ancient China. It served as capital under several of the great dynasties of Chinese history, including the Han, Qin, Sui, Tang, and Zhou dynasties, as well as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. With China’s recent investment in the country’s interior, the city has emerged as an important cultural, educational, and industrial center, with facilities for national security, research and development, and China’s space exploration program.
As China becomes globalized, rituals like the Han-style wedding ceremony have helped the Chinese to appreciate their own culture. In recent years the Far East has been flooded with Western ideas about the modern wedding ceremony. South Korea’s Unification Church, for instance, draws on many strains of Christian theology and peddles a modern, Western ritual style in its mass wedding ceremonies. One commenter at a China Daily article on the recent Han ceremony remarked, “I don’t understand…why we have to copy the West when our own ceremony is so unforgettably beautiful”, while another entreated the Chinese to “[s]upport [keeping] our own culture”. Increasingly, it seems, the Chinese are remembering the beauty of their own wedding traditions and growing comfortable with embracing it.
Modern marriage innovations like online ordination and Asia’s Western-style wedding trends are excellent ways to adapt in a shrinking world, but cultural traditions have their place, too. A thing isn’t necessarily good just because it is new, or bad just because it is old, and it would be false to say that tradition cannot co-exist with modernity. Xi’an’s Han-style wedding ceremony shows that it’s possible to honor the past while looking toward the future, and it teaches us to appreciate the beauty of timeless ritual.