Out of China: A marriage of East and West

PEKING - Springtime in China, and a busy month for weddings. On 8 May, traditionally a lucky day, because in Chinese the date sounds a bit like 'I am getting wealthy', some 4,000 couples tied the knot in Changchun, the capital of Jilin province. The China Youth Daily said the wedding-garment factory had been working overtime for the previous fortnight.

On 18 May ('I will get wealthy') there was a similar run on the services of The Purple House wedding centre, situated in a small lane off the busy Wangfujing shopping street in Peking. 'Eleven couples wanted that day. From 9am to 6pm, it was just one after another. We had to have a strict time limit on each ceremony,' said Zhang Fuyi, the general manager.

The Purple House is where romantic myth is turned into reality for hundreds of Peking's better-off young couples. The original wedding-service company of the same name was opened in 1934 - and closed 19 years later, when extravagant weddings were deemed un-socialist. Now that changing socialist mores have made it acceptable again, the lavish marriages are a booming industry. Since the Purple House was reborn four years ago, more than 1,500 couples have taken their vows in its first-floor ceremony room.

Before a couple can get married in China, they must first obtain permission from their work units. The legal registration of the marriage is then carried out at a government office, leaving complete freedom to decide how to celebrate the union. Some young couples who are living away from their home towns opt for a holiday and exchange their chosen marriage vows and rings alone in some scenic spot. Others arrange an informal gathering or picnic with their friends. For many families, however, the wedding celebrations concentrate on a banquet for large numbers of people. So far, pleas by the central government for families to limit the amount spent on lavish weddings have fallen on deaf ears.

The Purple House, owned by the Peking Textile Bureau, whose other business ventures these days include coal transportation and car spare parts, has evolved into a one-stop wedding shop for those who want a quasi-Western ceremony with Chinese characteristics. The ground-floor shop sells the outfits, rings, flowers, 'double happiness' decorations, and an array of wedding presents.

Upstairs, the modern Chinese wedding these days features a bride got up in a fairytale fantasy of white satin, organza and netting. 'I think wearing the Western-style dress has become very fashionable in Peking. The old-style traditional costume is not comfortable; it does not comply with current society now,' said Mr Zhang. The dress is usually rented; the Purple House has more than 100 to choose from, including imported models from Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong.

Instead of a vicar or government cadre, the ceremony is conducted by a master of ceremonies.

All up, the affair costs on average around 6,000 yuan (pounds 500), about twice the average annual urban income, if you believe the official statistics.

For those young couples who cannot afford such a spread, or who are not from Peking, the Purple House provides a 'photos-only' wedding ceremony.

Collective weddings also remain popular. In February 1991, Mr Zhang arranged a wedding for 100 couples in the Great Hall of the People. Other mass ceremonies have taken place at Tiananmen, the Summer Palace, and at the Great Wall.

While weddings become more theatrical again, the past two years in China has also seen the number of divorces soar: last year more than 900,000 couples went their separate ways.