By Kent Clark, China Correspondent
The first week in May annually marks the Chinese equivalent of America’s Labor Day (劳动节). The first Chinese Labor Day I spent in China was in 2005. As a study abroad student at that time, some classmates and I traveled to western Sichuan province to mingle with locals in the Himalayan mountain region. Fast forward seven years, and I was back in Sichuan province with my wife and her family for a cousin’s wedding.
I have attended more than a few weddings in China, and it remains a very enjoyable experience for me. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance at many Chinese weddings, with everything from large sparklers that threaten any fire detector in the vicinity to wedding hosts that make you feel like you are about to watch 12 rounds of boxing in Vegas. A romantic would say these events are touching, and the launch point for a long and successful marriage. A cynic would say that they are a great way to spend the day with friends and family, so long as those people are bringing thick red envelopes packed with hundreds. (Note: instead of bringing gifts, guests bring a red envelope called a hong bao (红包). The closer the relationship to the bride or groom, the more money is given. These amounts are then recorded and when one of those guests have their own wedding, it is customary to give more than you received.)
This wedding was going to be different though. As my mother-in-law described it, it was going to be a “country” wedding. All of the weddings I had previously attended had been in metropolitan areas. I asked a friend’s Chinese wife what exactly a “country” wedding means, and the only thing she could think of is that instead of drinking the Chinese liquor bai jiu (白酒) out of individual glasses, they just dump the bottle into a bowl and pass it around. I’m an adventurous type, so this was welcome news to my ears.
My previous experiences in rural China all included outstanding scenery, gracious people, and amenities that underscored the lack of money and resources many rural communities have to deal with. Arriving this time though, I saw a different style of farm life. Each person had a separate, gated house with a small courtyard between the gate entrance and the front door to park cars or grow fruit trees. The houses are usually not the highest quality of construction, but they are very spacious and roomier than city dwellings.
The wedding setup was in the courtyard of the father of the bride’s house. There were 10 circular tables spread around, with orange juice, Pepsi, bai jiu, and a pack of cigarettes on each table. The festivities kicked off with everyone gathering at the gate to welcome the bride and groom. Everything had been going roughly the same as every other wedding I had been to, until the chef walked out with a big knife and a bigger chicken. My initial reaction was “Oh man! I’m going to devour that bird!” As my mind wandered to all the possible ways the chef might prepare a delicious chicken meal, I was yanked back to reality when he raised the chicken and slit its throat with the big knife. I watched in amazement as he drizzled the chicken’s blood in a circle around the merry couple, then through the courtyard and into the house, where he made a point to leave plenty of blood right in front of the room where the bride and groom would spend their wedding night. According to tradition, the blood is not to be cleaned for 3 days. After digesting what I had just witnessed (I always thought throwing rice onto married couples was a little tame, but I could never have come up with this idea) I asked my father-in-law what the heck chicken blood (and the subsequent lack of cleaning it up) is supposed to represent. Like many Chinese traditions, it is based on a pun. The word for chicken is ji (鸡); a word for good luck is ji (吉); and thus a tradition is born. As for the 3 days, well, the more good luck the better.
The rest of the ceremony went off without a hitch. The wedding host was energetic and engaged, the sparklers were huge, and we did indeed drink bai jiu from a bowl, albeit an individual bowl. After returning home from the trip, I asked other locals if they were familiar with the importance of fresh chicken blood to a brand new marriage. Some said they were, some said they weren’t. They all made clear that different parts of the country, even different parts of the same province, have their own customs and traditions. I will never have time to see all the different types of weddings and traditions China has to offer, but I do know this: those chicken wings were darn good.