Jan 15

From Bows to Vows: Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs Issue Recommended Wedding Vows

Written by berlinf on Friday, January 15th, 2010 at 7:24 pm
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(If this one by General Song Zuying Mr. Sha Baoliang gives you goose bumps, visit here for an earlier version of the same song)

In America, I haven’t seen anybody getting married without an exchange of vows that goes something like this: “I, (Bride / Groom), take you (Groom / Bride), to be my (wife / husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part. “

Traditionally Chinese wedding does not have such formal vows.  The newly-weds just have three bows during a wedding, usually announced by a wedding host:  “First, bow to the heaven and earth; second, bow to the parents; third, bow to each other!”  But unofficial vows are common as shown in the Youtube song ( “Wedding vows”) I have included.  This artistic version of vows, as I suggested in my post about Chinese thinking and Chinese food, is rather fluid in the shift of images and ideas. Images in the song include running rivers, swallows darting in the sky, plantain leaves and buds, swings, bows and arrows, flowers and bees.  Go figure out what all these mean, without using psychoanalysis if you can.   There is much lyricism to it, but it says nothing about how to run a marriage.   So I suspect that such vows would expire in a month.

I don’t know what is the motivation behind it, but the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs has recently developed four versions of wedding vows, and I have provided a translation below.   I constantly reject translation contracts from publishers, but I translated these out of my own will, and free of charge, just to show what you are getting into if you are an English speaker marrying a Chinese.

You are welcome.

As you can see from the following four versions, such vows represent certain changes in thinking in Chinese approach to weddings.   In American weddings, you constantly hear ministers quote from 1 Corinthians:  “Love is patient.”  Traditionally Chinese people would think of it as a bad omen, as you don’t start a marriage by expecting it to be tricky, thorny, something that you have to face with patience, though such warnings are healthy.   In China the newly-weds are usually showered with more “auspicious” wishes on the day of their marriage, wishes about marriage being happy, long-lasting, etc, as you can see from such phrases as “good union for a hundred years” and “together till you are both gray-haired”.  Now, I found from the wedding vows an acknowledgement of responsibilities and obligations, difficulties and troubles.   Traditionally few people mention these on a wedding day.  It is not that anybody deny the existence of these issues.  These issues were simply expected to be  handled as they come,  later on.   Minor details, if you will.  Not on a wedding day.  But some must have discovered that such ceremonial acknowledgement of marital responsibilities is necessary, at least to those who went to the certifying clerk on an impulse.

I’ll let you read these vows for yourself.   The vows led to quite a bit of discussions in the Chinese blogosphere, but I personally think it is a good thing to have these vows. Taking a vow before the national flag and emblem may seem rather strange to a westerner, but China is, in theory, a secular country.  However, I also see references of “holy”, “temple”, etc. in the recommended texts.   I am not sure if it is entirely linguistic.

Some of my translation below is rather literal in an attempt to communicate what the text reads like originally in Chinese.  Original version in Chinese can be found here.

Recommended Version 1:

Certification clerk: I am a staff member of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.  My name is so-and-so. I am pleased to issue a marriage certificate for the two of you.

Certification clerk: Are you Mr. so-and-so (Male answers)

Are you Miss so-and-so? (Female answers)

Mr. so-and-so and Miss so and so, are you getting married out of your own will? (Both answer.)

Certification clerk: In our country, we practice an institution of marriage that values freedom of marriage, monogamy, and gender equality.  A husband and a wife shall be faithful and respectful to each other. As family members you pledge to respect and care for the old and the young.  You pledge to help each other and jointly maintain an equal, harmonious and civilized marriage and family relations. Can you do that? (Both answer)

Certification clerk: After our review, you meet the conditions for marriage registration.  Please come forward here to receive a marriage certificate. (The two sides step forward to sign and receive the certificate.)

Certification clerk: The Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China stipulates that the issuing of a marriage certificate signifies the start of a relationship between husband and wife. Your marriage has been established at this moment.  I sincerely wish you a happy marriage and a happy family!

Recommended Version 2

Certification clerk: I am a staff member of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.  My name is xxx. I am pleased to be able to issue a marriage certificate for the two of you.  I ask you to come forward, hand in hand, to this certification desk to experience the best moment of your life.

Certification clerk: Mr. so-and-so, are you willing to marry Miss so-and-so for your wife? (Male answers)

Certification clerk: Miss.so-and-so, are you willing to marry Mr. so-and-so for your husband? (Male answers)

Certification clerk: Miss so-and-so and Mr. so-and-so, after a review, you meet the conditions for marriage registration, please come forward to receive a marriage certificate. (The two sides step forward to sign and receive the certificate.)

Today’s date is ______, a date to be memorized throughout your life.  Your love comes into blossom on this day.  Your marriage is embarked on a journey of happiness because of this day.  Today you become lawful husband and wife.  In the days to come, you should cherish, love and support each other for a long lifetime relationship!

Recommended Version 3

Certification clerk: I am a staff member of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.  My name is so-and-so. I am pleased to be able to issue a marriage certificate for the two of you.

Certification clerk: Today’s date is ____, a day of the establishment of your happy union.  You have found each other in the vast sea of humans.  You hold each other’s hand and together you step into the holy temple of marriage.  I sincerely give you blessings.

Certification clerk: As the saying goes:  It takes a hundred years of cultivation to be able to share a boat.  It takes a thousand of years of cultivation to be able to share the same pillow. (Note:  do not be intimated by this, as a hundred years of cultivation or a thousand years of cultivation refer to one’s former life in a Buddhist sense.)  Getting married is an agreement to live together for an entire life, symbolizing the start of a new stage of life.  Life has told us:  A happy marriage has times of tenderness, romance and sweetness, but it is also built upon obligations, responsibilities and sacrifices.  I hope that you should use an accommodating attitude in treating each other, to forgive each other and to understand each other no matter what difficulties you might encounter.  You will share the warmth of family, but also the storms of life.  Can you do that?

(Both answer)

Certification clerk: Please come forward to receive a marriage certificate. (The two sides step forward to sign and receive the marriage certificate.)

Certification clerk: A marriage certificate is a legal proof of marital relationship between the two of you.  Please treasure it all your life.  I wish that the two of you will love each other forever!

Recommended Version 4

Certification clerk: I am a staff member of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.  My name is so-and-so. I am pleased to be able to issue a marriage certificate for the two of you. Today is a holy day.  Would you solumnly answer my question: are you getting married out of your own will? (Both answer)

Certification clerk: Please turn to the solemn national flag and national emblem, as you read the wedding vows.

(Both read the wedding vows:)

We are getting married out of our own will.  From today, we will jointly assume the responsibilities and obligations entrusted to us by this marriage: filial piety to our parents, nurturing of the young, mutual respect, mutual love, mutual trust, mutual understanding and mutual forgiveness.  We pledge to support and love each other throughout our lifetime.

From today on, in good times or bad, for richer or for poorer, in health or sickness, in youth or old age, we will be committed to each other like passengers on the same boat on a storm day.  We will share difficulties and successes and become lifelong companions. We should and we will abide by the vows we are making today.

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10 Responses to “From Bows to Vows: Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs Issue Recommended Wedding Vows”

  1. Li Denghui Says:

    I like it how they couldn’t completely prevent a little bit of poetry from creeping in at the end there. Still, who wouldn’t prefer the flying swallows etc.?

  2. dewang Says:

    Hi Berlin,

    Great translations. First few words that come to mind after reading your article – civil and practical.

  3. berlinf Says:

    Dewang, I agree with you. These vows are rather civil and practical. Really not bad.

  4. FOARP Says:

    What? Song Zuying is a general now? I guess it pays to have friends in high places, or Shanghai places as it were. Seriously, what old Jiang Zemin saw in the bint I don’t know, especially since they were both married to other people at the time.

    @berlinf – Are most American weddings still in church? That’s rather old fashioned don’t you think? I always thought the US was similar to the UK, with civil weddings being the modern norm. Hell, church weddings are expensive, and, at least in the UK, you have to regularly attend the church in question for them to allow you to get married in it (at least if it’s a Church of England church).

  5. berlinf Says:

    FOARP, Song Zuiying’s title is 少将(major general). She is also an adjunct professor for a university. Unbelievable.

    From what I observed, most Americans hold weddings in a church. I have seen only one marriage in a courthouse. I am not sure about the expenses, but they should not be very expensive, because I haven’t heard of anybody complain about it.

    In China, getting the registration is cheap, but the banquets are very very expensive. Fortunately these vows are still free:-)

  6. Josef Says:

    berlinf: In the first version, it has a tiny hint how to run a marriage by explicitly quoting monogamy. For Taiwanese women, for example, it is one of the biggest fears that the husband, working in China, get a second wife.
    At my wedding in Taiwan, we had vows (translated to English for me) AND bows – I assume that will remain in China too. And there was also national flag and emblem. But the bureaucratic part was done before and the vows and bows were just a beautiful event.
    I do not know if the text in Taiwan was as romantic as the four versions above, but I would not be surprised: Chinese are (hopeless) romantic, think alone about wedding malls, wedding photo albums etc. (of course we did that too).
    In (continental) Europe the (real) wedding is in a courthouse, also with national flag and emblem. If you want to have some church too, it is your business but not relevant to anything. And the words you here there really gives you goose bumps.

  7. FOARP Says:

    @josef – In the UK the vows are usually taken at the registrar’s office, although they can be taken anywhere – you just have to pay a bit more. The signatures in the registry and the issuing of the marriage certificate are the only official part – flags and emblems aren’t really our kind of thing.

    I’ve been to a few weddings in China, from what I remember of them (they were very alcoholic affairs!) there were bows and an official guaranteed that the marriage license was genuine. They were also asked to watch a video teaching them the facts of life before getting married, something which, given the lack of sex education in China, is necessary – but all this happened at the time of the issuing of the license, the actual wedding party often happened months later.

  8. Sam - Johannesburg Says:

    Sorry guys for joining this story so late. I like the 4th Version and the pledge in front of the flag – I think that it is both a pledge to each other and to the country. The question of entering into the marriage of one’s free-will is to ensure that there are no behind the scene contracts where people are married off for other people’s monetary benefits – somewhere in our dark past, maybe…? However, even pledges can be broken in today’s world… promises are just for the passioante moment and there is always enticement from other sources out there… So it really depends on the individuals concerned – whether they are sincere (and this is THE KEY to all happy marriages) and committed to each other… one can be in the desert and not be in front of an offcial…. as long as both parties are of the same intent.

  9. Joanna Says:

    Nice vows actually, I like them. They’re not at all what I’ve expected. It just goes to show how little we actually know of other cultures…


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