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I Do What? In China, Some Western Wedding Customs Don't Compute

16 Jul 2017 7:55 pm
By Chao Deng 

BEIJING -- The bridal party huddled in a park, with groomsmen and bridesmaids in powder blue trying to figure out how to parade down a walkway and arrange themselves at a wedding arch. Walking down the aisle is a new thing in China.

Plus, it was sweltering and one groomsman wanted to shed his suit jacket.

Here to save the day was the hired wedding host, a combination emcee, cheerleader and Miss Manners ready to guide guests through the fashionable but still-strange traditions of Western weddings.

"Come on, keep it on," said Mao Bokun to the sweaty attendant. "First groomsman, here," marking the place, herding the party into line.

Later, when the young women present hesitated at the back of the crowd as the bride prepared to throw the bouquet, Mr. Mao coaxed them to the front. "Don't be shy," he said, helping people understand it was an honor to catch it.

Western-style weddings, a byproduct of China's rising affluence and openness, are relatively new here, and people are still getting the hang of it.

When the best man won't take the stage to share memories, or when the newlyweds balk at beginning the first dance, Mr. Mao and his fellow hosts earn their pay. A cottage industry over the past decade has sprung up to book their services.

One company, Langyi Studio, has more than 300 hosts in its stable, with top performers charging more than $2,500 a wedding. All of them must complete training classes in skills such as voice and presentation, and abide by strict rules, including refusing the cash tips in red envelopes that are ubiquitous in China.

Langyi scores hosts on stage presence and other attributes, and will dock a host's pay for garbling the name of the happy couple or other infractions.

Host Wang Gang, 27 years old, said he does vocal exercises at least four times a week to keep his speaking voice strong. For inspiration, Mr. Wang watches American romance movies that celebrate the triumph of love, such as "The Notebook," and memorizes verses from love songs to recite at weddings.

"It's a mode of life," he said.

These days, divorce rates in China are rising and social media is filled with lascivious tales of rich businessmen and slinky mistresses. Cynicism abounds, but Mr. Wang brims with sincerity.

"It's a hard line of work if you don't believe in love," said Mr. Wang. "You'd feel like a quack."

Mr. Mao also tries to heighten the emotion of the ceremony, especially if the guests are all close friends. "You have couples reciting 'I do' without feeling, but I want to put them in the mood, to have them really experience the moment," he said.

Host Zhang Lei, 35, said she began her career after seeing a young wedding host with "the aura of a movie star" charm the crowd.

"The bride and groom are like a bottle of red wine, and I'm a bottle opener," she said.

For most of Chinese history, weddings were about carrying on family lines and were typically arranged by parents. In the traditional Confucian ceremony, the couple first bowed to the heaven and earth, then to their ancestors and parents, and finally to each other.

Brides wore a veil of red silk and didn't speak. A respected elder or village leader would officiate.

Under Chairman Mao, arranged marriages were banned. Women, he proclaimed, "hold up half the sky" and should have consent.

Still, the Communist Party had the power to approve or reject marriages in order to serve the state's agenda. Celebrations became austere, and many traditions were abandoned.

Today, as China has become more open to the West, young couples with the means are filling that vacuum by opting for fancy affairs in hotels or special venues.

On a recent Sunday, Mr. Mao, 35, took charge at Bride Elysee, a wedding venue with eight banquet halls and four ornate rooms resembling chapels. The constellations of the zodiac, illuminated in purple lights, lined the walls. A wedding ceremony and lunch for 100 people starts at about $18,000.

The ceremony launched at 10:28 a.m. -- the number 8 is considered lucky.

"Please take your seats," rang out Mr. Mao's voice over the microphone, echoing up to the ceiling of decorative arches.

Professional photographers dashed around to clear the aisle, a glass floor lighted with blue lights and sprinkled with rose petals. Chattering guests, without a clear dress code, wore everything from dark suits and cocktail dresses to shorts and flip flops.

The doors swung open for the groom, Zhang Zheng, and Mr. Mao began to narrate what was happening and cue the next action: "He's by his parents' side, receiving their warm hugs."

The bride, Qian Yaping, entered next, escorted by her father. Mr. Mao, who also served as officiant -- most Chinese don't practice organized religions with clergy -- led the couple through an exchange of vows and rings. The couple then signed a ceremonial marriage certificate with white feather pens.

Then it was on to the adjoining banquet hall for lunch, where tables were laden with platters of fried shrimp, lobster, braised beef and fried rice. Red wine and sodas flowed.

The entertainment began. It included three young women in short skirts and knee-high boots dancing first to Vivaldi, and later to the pop song "Can I Be Your Plus One."

Mr. Mao grimaced from the sidelines -- China's wedding hosts aren't involved in traditional wedding planner duties on music, food or flowers. "Le-oh!" he sighed, using Chinese slang meaning "low class."

Soon, Mr. Mao's portion of the entertainment began, and he came back to the stage to lead a game of "Name That Tune," handing out stuffed animals to participants.

The previous day, at the outdoor wedding, Mr. Mao had focused on getting the couple to share stories about themselves.

The groom, Zhang Chen, met his bride, Yun Qing, through mutual friends three years ago. Mr. Mao tells the crowd that the groom worked up the courage to call Ms. Yun on the pretense of learning how to make fried rice with eggs.

Mr. Mao, a former electronics-equipment salesman who has been a wedding host for nearly a decade, soon gets the groom to reveal where he asked for a first kiss -- in Beijing's 798 Art District -- and then gets Ms. Yun to describe her emotions when Mr. Zhang proposed.

"My heart was jumping in the moment," she said.

All this had at least one bridesmaid breaking down in tears of joy. Mr. Mao beamed with satisfaction. "That's real emotion."

Write to Chao Deng at Chao.Deng@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 16, 2017 15:55 ET (19:55 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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