Tying the knot takes a great leap forward

TODAY is that very special day for thousands of young Chinese couples waiting to tie the knot. The day and the month are even numbers according to both the solar and lunar calendars, which is supposed to bode well for staying together. The lunar date, the 28th day of the 8th month, is especially auspicious: in Chinese it sounds like "wealth and wealth". All of which is just as well, because getting married in China these days is not cheap.

The legal side of getting hitched is deeply unromantic - a visit to the registration office, with letters of approval from one's work unit, health certificates, and yet more government forms to fill in. So after the bureaucracy, it is definitely time to party.

After decades of socialist-minimalism, the modern Chinese celebration has lost no time in reinventing itself, despite pleas from the central government for restraint. According to a survey by Liberation Daily of weddings in Shanghai, one-fifth of couples spent more than 100,000 yuan (pounds 7,700) on their big day - a vast sum even by Shanghai standards.

Wedding shops, like Golden Proclamation and Purple House, are there to turn fantasies into reality. Last Thursday Li Huamao and Wang Rui were in the fitting room at Purple House in Peking finalising their choice of The Dress. Like most clients, Wang Rui opted for a full-length Western- style white satin and net petticoat creation to rent for the day. Why not the traditional red silk sheath dress? "The waitresses in restaurants wear the Chinese-style dress. A wedding should be a noble occasion."

Most celebrations are held in a restaurant or hotel: the most important feature of any wedding party is the banquet - usually for a couple of hundred people. But Purple House has also organised functions at the Great Wall, the Inner Mongolian grasslands and at the bottom of the National Flag pole in Tiananmen Square (for a guardsman).

With just three days to go, Wang Rui had one last problem to solve - where to get the 10 cars for the wedding convoy. She was going to borrow them from work until the government banned the use of publicly owned cars for private functions, as part of the anti-corruption campaign.