Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Taiwanese Engagement Ceremony: Part 1

Being in a mix-culture relationship has its unique rewards and challenges.  Forget about the little girl's fantasy of happy bride in her perfect dress and riding off into the sunset with the perfect man in a white carriage decorated with roses.  Wedding is a war zone, and your goal is walk carefully on the military demarcation line without stepping on any land mines.  Make one mistake and prepare to hear about it for the next 30 years.

My parents didn't wait until the wedding to throw down the gauntlets.  They wanted a traditional engagement ceremony, and my father refuse to recognize Western style engagement in Japan.  World War III ensued and the responsibility to organize this event fell onto me.

This was an event  that should be co-ordinated by parents and middle woman. Normally, brides don't organize their own ceremony.  However, the engagement ceremony in its purest form was economically, culturally, and logistically impossible for us (and you will see why).  I had to reinvent the ceremony and create one that was within our limitation without offending any cultural sensibility.

During my research, I found very little English resource on the internet at all regarding Engagement Ceremony. Even though this is not exactly food related, I hope these next few post will shed some light on this rare tradition and help future couples plan their own.

The traditions of engagement and wedding ceremony can be traced back to 402-211 B.C China. Three venerable texts, The Book of Rites, The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial and the Baihu Tona outline the Three Covenant and the Six Rites that were considered necessary elements of a marriage union. The full ritual is rather complicated and has undergone many changes and simplification since its creations. Each regions also adapted different variations according to their geological, political, and cultural needs.

What remains constant were these main objectives:
  • Joining and enhancing the two families and ensuring succession with numerous descendants
  • Reverence to parents and ancestors
  • Omen to encourages fertility and wealth
  • Financial, and social obligations contracted by both families at the betrothal
  • Extensive gift giving etiquette
  • The bride’s incorporation into her husband’s family

Nowadays, more couples in Northwestern Taiwan are opting to skip the engagement ceremony all together for a more romantic Western style engagement idealized in movies. In contrast, the marriage of daughters are a huge deal for the southerners. Huge and extravagant engagement and wedding ceremonies are very common. Relatives and neighbors compete to host the best and biggest engagement for their daughters and weddings for their sons. For a middle class family, the engagement event would cost, on average, $55,000CND after value adjustment, for the bride’s family. The groom’s family then would feel obliged to upstage that for a total of $75,000CND between the two events. However, at least ⅔ of these amount are cash, which are reinvested in the couple’s first house.

In the West, marriage is the union of two individuals. For Taiwanese, marriage is the union between two families. Thus, the most important parties in the engagement event are the parents of the bride and groom. A generation or two ago, marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom, who may have never met each other.
The engagement "involved an exchange of gifts which, rather than being merely ceremonial, was an integral part of the contract being made between the two families. This was especially so because the girl's family, losing her to another lineage forever, sought compensation that included a cash bride's price. Whatever arrangements were finally negotiated therefore reflected the worth of the girl and her family. So important was this step that, to all intents and purposes, its completion constituted the de facto completion of the marriage. Even if death intervened during the engagement period, which might last a year or longer, it would probably be necessary for the girl, if she survived her fianc√©, to join the lineage that had contracted for her services. Conversely, the boy would probably need to complete the ceremony so that his deceased partner's soul could have a secure place within his family's ancestral cult, though this would not prevent him from marrying a second, living bride." (Joachim 1986, 164) 

More next post...

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