I’ve found myself in the perplexing position of wedding guest for total strangers several times in Taiwan and China - and if tales related by fellow Middle Kingdom travellers are anything to go by, my experiences aren’t unusual.
I’d been in Taiwan a month and already I was crashing my first wedding. It was in the central mountain range where I came upon a grassy valley filled with a small crowd of well-dressed people beneath a dozen or so bright red tents with white plastic tables weighed down by dishes too numerous to count. I parked my motorcycle to spy and enjoy the fragrance discreetly.
Seconds later, a man wearing a tuxedo and flip-flops waved a downturned palm at me and shouted something. His tone was friendly, and my week of Mandarin 101 was enough to clue me in to the meaning of the hand wave, scram in the west but come here in the east.
Drunk and happy, the man seemed to have something to tell me. All eyes were on me as he dragged me to a table set lavishly with Styrofoam bowls, paper napkins, and a football field of multicolored sashimi strips, mountains of shrimp, endless crab, and massive Pacific lobster (all tail and no claws). Smiling people piled food on my plate and someone poured me a drink. Moments later, the first man returned, dragging a second in cummerbund and flip-flops.
'Welcome to you,' the second man said in broken, drunken English. 'Very lucky! Very, very lucky!'
Disengaging myself from a chopstick-full of lobster tail I stood and thanked the man, and agreed that I was indeed very lucky to have stumbled upon such a feast.
His smile was wide, all mouth and eyes.
'No…my meaning is that we are lucky. For Chinese wedding…you coming means baby will come soon.'
The man, I found out later, was the groom. And my accidental arrival, according to tradition, portended speedy conception.
This was to be the first of several lucky wedding crashing experiences. At a Ming-themed ceremony in Guangxi province the bride, wearing traditional dress, arrived riding a donkey side-saddle, while behind her a second donkey carried a teakwood chest filled with treasures for the groom’s family. They fed me noodles, symbolising long life, and welcomed me as a long lost friend.
A few years later while researching for Lonely Planet in Yunnan I stumbled onto the traditional nuptial ceremony of a Dai minority couple. The groom’s party had, according to tradition, gone off to the bride’s village to 'kidnap' the bride, but the couple were delayed by road conditions and by the time they arrived to commence the ceremony everyone was very drunk on rice liquor.
By the time the groom arrived, bearing the bride on his back, only a handful of guests still possessed the hand-eye coordination to throw buckets of water on them (as is tribal custom). The Dai nuptial ceremony involves downing of shots between chanting of vows, and soon both bride and groom were drunk and legally wed.
Some time after the ceremony the groom’s father thanked me for coming and told me that my unexpected arrival was auspicious for the same reasons as it had been back in Taiwan. He also said that because they were members of an indigenous group, the new couple weren’t bound by the country’s rigid one-child policy and suggested that if I ever showed up at another wedding I should double the couple’s luck and bring a date.
Helpful tips for the accidental wedding guest
Drinking is a big part of weddings throughout the middle kingdom, and one word you’ll hear a lot is Ganbei. Literally translated, it means dry cup, and when you hear it, you’re meant to do just that. Drink flows freely at a Chinese wedding. The groom’s family may drink especially heavily, as tradition dictates that they’ll be footing the bill for the whole shebang. (The bride’s family paid for the engagement party, so at the wedding party they’re the ones who are already hungover).
As an unexpected good luck totem, you will likely be a special target, with uncles and aunties and various members of both parties encouraging you to drink heavily. Under no circumstances should you attempt moderation. If you aren’t prepared to match the uncles glass for glass, your best bet is to stick to tea, using 'wo you tong feng' (I have gout) as your excuse.
In Mandarin the words for 'raw' and 'birth' (shen and sheng, respectively) have similar enough sounds to make the consumption of raw dishes auspicious. Close to the ocean, expect sashimi to flow abundantly. In the inland regions, smiling hosts may present you with small dishes of raw meat as a way to encourage the celestial spirits to bless the womb of the new bride with child. Generally the meat of choice is something of the bovine variety, and in rural areas (where meat tends to wander into the abattoir itself) such dishes are usually prepared with the greatest of care, as poisoning an entire wedding party is considered inauspicious.
Taipei and Beijing may disagree politically, but on wedding gifts unity rules: cash, of certain numerical denominations, presented in a crisp red envelope is the gift of choice. As a stranger, you won’t be expected to give much, but it's important that the amount you give is numerically auspicious. Twos, Threes and Eights (the first representing a couple, the second a couple with child, and the third just being lucky) are considered good. Avoid Fours of any kind, as the word for 'four' (si) sounds uncomfortably like the word for 'death' (si) – a reality newlyweds prefer to avoid contemplating. Which brings us to…
Should your travels take you through Taiwan, you may stumble across a procession of flower-draped flatbed trucks on top of which people dressed in white play drums while comely (and scantily clad) young ladies sway seductively and sing karaoke tunes. And you may (especially if you are a certain naïve young future author of travel guides), assuming you’ve stumbled across some sort of bachelor party, attempt to join the festivities. Do not do this: The affair you’ve come across is a funeral. The dancer is there to give the deceased man a proper send-off, and the colour white symbolises not bridal chastity as it does in the west, but death, the inevitable fate awaiting us all.
Assume a suitably somber mien and watch with reverence, but don’t tarry. A stranger’s presence brings no luck to a Taiwanese funeral. And there will be no lobster.
Joshua Samuel Brown is currently on the road working in Central America for Lonely Planet. Read about his travels online at Snarky Tofu.
Looking for more etiquette and food tips? Take a look at Lonely Planet's many articles on China.