Saturday, October 24, 2020

Traditional wedding ceremonies on either side of the Silk Road

I’ve been reading more from Chrysostom lately, and have come across an interesting commonality with regard to the præ-modern wedding ceremonies, both in the eastern part of the Eastern Roman Empire (that is to say, Syria) and in China. In the Christian East, weddings were generally not held in the Church, but were civil ceremonies which were subsequently blessed by the Church. Here is a description of the præ-modern Syrian wedding ceremony, given by Catharine P Roth:
For a long time there was no specifically Christian wedding ceremony. If a husband and wife received baptism, their marriage was thereby incorporated into the body of Christ. If Christians wished to marry, they were expected to obtain the bishop’s permission. As Saint Ignatios says: ‘It is right for men and women who marry to be united with the consent of the bishop, that marriage be according to the Lord and not according to lust.

After a marriage had been contracted in accordance with the civil law, the Church ratified the union as a Christian marriage by admitting the newlyweds together to the Holy Communion. It appears from Chrysostom’s sermons that in his time the actual wedding took place in the [groom’s] home, at a banquet which could be the occasion of unseemly display. He urges that the clergy be invited to the party in place of the customary pagan singers and dancers, in order that marriage begin in seriousness and holiness…

When the State gave the Church responsibility for all marriages, whether the men and women involved were committed Christians or not, it became necessary to provide a wedding ceremony which could be separated from the Eucharist. So the rite of crowning began to be used alone. Those couples who were not able to receive the Holy Communion could instead share a common cup of wine.
Huh. Weddings used to be lavish banquets with singing and dancing, hosted by the groom’s family, with the newlywed couple sharing a common cup of wine… why does this sound familiar?
The wedding banquet is a lavish affair lasting two or more hours. Invited guests sign their names in a wedding book or on a large scroll and present their red envelopes to attendants at the entrance of the wedding hall. The envelope is opened and the money is counted while the guest looks on.

The guests’ names and amounts of money given are recorded so that the bride and groom know how much each guest gave toward the wedding. This record is helpful for when the couple later attends this guest's own wedding—they are expected to offer a gift of more money than they themselves received.

After presenting the red envelope, guests are ushered into a large banquet hall. Guests are sometimes assigned seats but are sometimes welcome to sit where they choose. Once all the guests have arrived, the wedding party begins. Nearly all Chinese banquets feature an emcee or master of ceremonies who announces the arrival of the bride and groom. The couple’s entrance marks the beginning of the wedding celebration.

After one member of the couple, usually the groom gives a short welcome speech, guests are served the first of nine meal courses. Throughout the meal, the bride and groom enter and re-enter the banquet hall, each time wearing different clothing outfits. While the guests eat, the bride and groom are typically busy changing their clothes and attending to their guests’ needs. The couple typically re-enters the dining hall after the third and sixth courses.

Toward the end of the meal but before dessert is served, the bride and groom toast the guests. The groom’s best friend may also offer up a toast. The bride and groom make their way to each table where the guests stand and simultaneously toast the happy couple. Once the bride and groom have visited each table, they exit the hall while dessert is served.

Once dessert is served, the wedding celebration promptly ends. Before leaving, guests line up to greet the bride and groom and their families standing outside the hall in a receiving line. Each guest has a photo taken with the couple and may be offered sweets by the bride.

After the wedding banquet, close friends and relatives go to the bridal chamber and play tricks on the newlyweds as a way to extend good wishes. The couple then shares a glass of wine and teach traditionally cuts off a lock of hair to symbolize that they are now of one heart.
It is possible to belabour the point here more than necessary, and I fear I may already have done so. Even so: the traditional Byzantine and the traditional Chinese sensibility, æsthetic and sense of proper order surrounding weddings – the rites surrounding the creation of new families and therefore the continuance of the state – seem to have progressed along very similar lines. From an anthropological perspective, the understanding of the stakes of a wedding seems to have been very similar also: the mingling of the blood being symbolised by drinking from the same cup of wine.

This case also shows that the proper rôle of the Church was once considered to be the consecration and transfiguration of existing social relations, not their destruction or replacement. One of the problems that both Christian West and Christian East now face is that Christianity has been embedded in the culture so long that we have forgotten what the cultural forms used to look like without Christianity – and as such we have tended to take the Christian transfiguration of culture for granted… or worse, mistaken the christened culture itself for Christianity.

Modern China is rightly wary of Christian attempts to subvert and destroy Chinese culture. Modern Christians in the West, who allow themselves to be duped by fascist bad actors like the Brazilian TFP and cult apologists like CESNUR, imagine that this is the result of communism. This is not true. Not only have Chinese Communists been open to Christian influence on the culture, but Chinese governments going back to the Qing have historically had good reason to be wary of Christian influence in society, particularly following the Taiping Rebellion.

We Christians can – and should – deplore and reject the Chinese state’s erastianism as a falsity in social relations. But in order to do this effectively, we need to divest ourselves of the liberal mythology that Christianity is something intrinsically private and individual and has nothing to do with the public sphere. (It’s not. And what’s more, liberals who destructively push and proselytise their preferred brands of Christianity in China don’t even try to pretend that it is.) Additionally, certain neoconservative Roman Catholics in particular need to divest themselves of any lingering papocæsarist dreams of subjecting the Chinese government to Catholicism. As long as they continue to entertain such fantasies, the Chinese suspicion that ‘one more Christian’ means ‘one less Chinese’ will be, to a certain degree, justified – and the Chinese government’s project of ‘Sinicising’ Christianity will have some degree of credible ideological vindication.

But Orthodox Christians can and should draw on the cultural and anthropological material provided to us by the experience of the Christianisation of Eastern Rome – as here, with Chrysostom’s sermons – to make the case that Christianity is not out to destroy China or to subvert Chinese people. Our mission is not to destroy but to transfigure. Just ask the Greeks and the Syrians!