Just a warning, folks, this is a long one due to the uncountable superstitions and some regulations present in Chinese culture. Enjoy!
While so far we had gone through a couple of minor confusions as our different cultures collided, they were nothing compared to what was yet to come; the dates. While I did possess a basic awareness of the Chinese obsession with auspicious dates, the exact dimensions remained hidden to my sight until we began attempting to find our dates for the Chinese certificate and wedding ceremony. These are separate in Chinese culture and the “legal side” of getting married, so the trip to the registry office to register as a married couple, is a rather private affair, which only the couple itself attend dressed in slightly formal but not flashy clothing. After the fact the couple receive a red booklet with the certificate, whose overall design reminds of China’s more communist days. Six months to a year after this rather pragmatic process follows the wedding extravaganza with countless fascinating traditions; more on this another time.
So, two Chinese wedding dates had to be selected. With my Westernised attitude I was trying to be efficient, and as we would otherwise have about 4 different dates to remember and celebrate in the future, I suggested our three year anniversary that was coming up on the 13th December 2014. I do not share the common western belief that the number 13 is an unlucky number. In my youth, as one of the Fridays was coming up, I decided to put the theory to the test and so I analysed carefully my luck throughout the day. My conclusion was that quite far from being unlucky I had actually spent a rather happy and joyous day. From that day on I decided that the 13th would actually be my lucky day. And a few years later, this date was the beginning of the relationship between Mr. Li, aka my future inofficial fiancé, and myself. So, looking at the date of our third anniversary (13/12/14) from where I stood, it was a pretty cool date.
But of course, I had not counted on Chinese superstition, which when it comes to numbers and their auspiciousness reaches an unimaginable extent. As Mr. Li informed his mother about our chosen date, we were immediately informed that this was impossible as 13 in Chinese is pronounced “Yao San”, which also means “to go separate ways”, suggesting the relationship is doomed. Hence this is a common date for divorces; for weddings not so much, as you can imagine. What was more, in our case the added tragedy was that Mr. Li’s parents were divorced on the 13th of December. To top off the bad luck trifecta, it is the date of the Nanjing Massaker, which to me, as a Nanjinger by choice, is an ever present part of dark history.
Although I am the type of person who tends to hold a devil may care attitude towards other’s opinions, it would be rather immature to cause such aggravation to the people around me. Also, four sounds similar to “dying” in Chinese while the number two, “er” is a modern expression for stupid, which would have made our wedding date “will die, will be stupid, will go separate ways” (yes, in that order)…maybe not then. And anyway, why get upset if I still had my German wedding?
The next suggestion I came up with was that Mr. Li and me choose his birthday, the 5th December and roughly a week before the inauspicious three-year anniversary, to get the certificate, and my birthday, the 18th August the following year for the ceremony. I was sure this time I had managed to play by the rules, since 8 is a very auspicious number as its pronunciation “ba” apparently sounds similar to “fa” (a bit of a stretch, say those cynical voices in my head, but let’s not nit-pick), which means big fortune. By this logic, my birthday according to the Chinese system is 818; big fortune, will have big fortune. I was proud of my suggestion since it corresponded to Chinese belief, while being Germanically efficient; no need to remember extra wedding dates, just celebrate them on each other’s birthdays and have a third, German wedding date. But once again, I had underestimated local superstition.
After Mr. Li had presented his mother with this latest suggestion, the grandmother “Laolao” was consulted; as the oldest living relative she is the authority on any wedding-related issues, from dates over colours to traditions (and in my belief the only one who actually knows all of the complex rules and superstitions by heart).
I might have to interject here that Laolao is the grandmother on the mother’s side and Nainai is the grandmother on the father’s side, or if you are from Southern China Laolao is called Waipo. Traditionally, the father’s side is the one with the authority, however in this special case, due to the aforementioned divorce, Mr. Li mainly grew up with his mother and her family, having less contact with the father’s side, and therefore it is Laolao, not Nainai, who is holding the matrimonial presidency so to speak.
Laolao decreed that it was not to be, due to his cousin’s marriage which was coming up on the 12th of September. According to traditional Inner Mongolian belief (my friends here in the South had never heard of this rule), if two young couples get married within the space of one year, the equilibrium of the universe is upset and in order to restore the balance an old person, quite probably poor Laolao herself, would die.
Looking at my incredulous face upon sharing the news with me, Mr. Li thought quickly of a way to reason with me.
“I don’t really believe in this superstitious stuff either, but let’s say we ignore the custom and Laolao does die shortly after; the whole family will blame us.”
He was right; a horde of angry Inner Mongolians is not generally an occurrence you would wish upon yourself, so better appease the gods and wait a few more months to tie the Chinese knot.
So, after days of contemplation, we returned to a date that Mr. Li’s mother had initially suggested; the 1st October. Being the first day of the Chinese national holiday, which lasts one week, this is a very traditional and popular date, ensuring that it is practical for guests to attend. In terms of auspiciousness it does not seem to have any particular meaning from what Mr. Li could tell, it is simply a matter of practicality. I could not help but notice that the Chinese way of writing dates makes our wedding day 101; let us all hope there will not be any reason to call the police then…
One down, two to go. The next date, that was still an issue, was the certificate date for China. Since out three-year anniversary was now out of the question and the birthdays idea had fallen through, we were back at 0. Furthermore, Mr. Li informed me that we had to wait until after his 25th birthday to get married, since according to Chinese labour law, he would get only three days paid holiday off for his honeymoon if he was under 25; after his 25th birthday, though, he could take 13 days paid leave.
It almost sounded to me as if 24 is the sell-by date, once you pass it, they feel sorry and give you a better offer (since obviously 25 is old in Chinese singleton years). On the other hand, one could argue that this policy supports a healthier attitude towards marriage promoting “marriage after 25” and a less rushed approach towards matrimony. After all, blitz marriages, where couples around 25 years old get married within one year of beginning to date, are incredibly common in China due to the pressure put on the young people by their parents and society in general; this then leads to astronomical divorce rates especially in recent years as the legal dissolution of marriage has become more socially acceptable. Recent figures of Jiangsu province, where I currently live and work, suggest a couple gets divorced here every three minutes. Not a very rosy outlook. With this in mind, I would applaud the incentive provided by the government to marry slightly later in life (although still rather young from our western perspective).
Back to the topic at hand; the dates. So after 5th December, not on 13th December, and not on Valentine’s Day either as Mr. Li cautioned me:
“Everyone marries on western Valentine’s Day [there is also a Chinese Valentine’s Day]; we would have to start queueing at the registry office at 3am!”
Yepp, not that one either. Since we have to get a certificate of nubility for myself (more on that later), I figured we could just play it by ear depending on when we manage to get said document from the Germans. But as irony would have it, in order to get the certificate, one needs first to set a date. Ah, the unbreakable circle of bureaucracy.
With all this chaos at hand, I can’t even begin to think about the German wedding date, although guesstimates place it somewhere in May 2016. For now, even the Chinese certificate date is still written in the stars; will keep you updated.