A Guide to Chinese, Western and Indian Wedding Etiquette

Reading Time: 5 minutesDid you know that it is inauspicious to present a Chinese couple with a wedding gift wrapped in white?

Or that according to Indian wedding etiquette, it is inappropriate to wear red as a guest at the ceremony?

Did you know that it’s inconsiderate to drag your children to an American wedding unless they have been invited?

Wedding etiquette can be tricky, especially when you have a mix of cultures to contend with.

As a cosmopolitan metropolis, Hong Kong provides ample opportunities to learn about different religious and ethnic beliefs. We may get away with being oblivious to cultural nuances on a daily basis, but it’s advisable for wedding guests to know the traditional do’s and don’ts before attending the wedding of a friend or colleague.

It would be impossible to cover the wedding traditions of every religion and nationality in this article, so we’ve narrowed the focus here to traditional Chinese, Indian and Western weddings. Quite often weddings are a unique fusion of different cultures, so who better than Hong Kong’s renowned wedding professionals to give a broad overview of wedding guest etiquette.

Chinese Wedding Etiquette

If you have married within the last three months or have recently lost an immediate family member, it would be inappropriate for you to attend a Chinese wedding, according to Leongwoo Yan, an international award-winning photographer who specialises in destination weddings in South East Asia and Hong Kong.

But if you’re not celebrating or commiserating, let the preparations begin.

Chinese tea ceremony

While Chinese weddings may incorporate many traditions, such as the tea ceremony where the couple kneels and serves tea to their elders, these events are for family members only.

Guests may be invited to attend a civil or church ceremony and a Chinese banquet, which includes a nine-course meal. Sadly some Chinese wedding hosts still serve shark fin soup as one of those courses. These days it’s acceptable not to eat it if it’s served to you. Simply leave it uneaten and it will be collected with the empty dishes prior to the next course being served.

What to Wear to a Chinese Wedding

Another one of the most important aspects of wedding etiquette is guest attire. When deciding what to wear to a Chinese wedding, avoid colours that may upset the couple and their families. Sonya Yeung, founder of luxury destination wedding planning company, Bliss Creations says, “Guests should not wear red, as the colour represents the luck, happiness and fortune of the new bride. Traditionally, guests were also expected to avoid wearing white, blue, black and green; however, there are fewer taboos around this nowadays.”

Chinese tea ceremony

What to Give as a Gift at a Chinese Wedding

To cover the cost of their meal, guests traditionally give money in a red envelope (lai see) as a wedding gift to the couple. According to Sonya, “Amounts should be no less than HK $800 per person and should include even amounts of bills, but not the number four, as it symbolises death.

Including the number nine within your lai see is good luck as the pronunciation means ‘long and forever’.

Chinese "Red packs" at wedding

Gifts that symbolise death or the end of relationships should not be given to the couple. These include clocks, towels, pointed and sharp objects, gifts in black or white or sets of four.

Chinese tea ceremony

Indian Wedding Etiquette

Natasha Mahtani Mohinani had a traditional four-day Hindu wedding in Mumbai, India. Events included engagement, mehendi (henna), sangeet (dance) and reception parties, prayer and wedding ceremonies. According to Leongwoo, Indian wedding etiquette means that you should never refuse or throw away the blessed sweet food called “karah prashad”, which is typically served at Sikh and Hindu weddings. You should accept it sitting down with cupped hands.

Read more: What to Expect at an Indian Wedding

groom staring into bride's eyes at a traditional Indian wedding

What to Wear to an Indian Wedding

Whilst each wedding will differ based on the religious beliefs of the couples, most Indian weddings include hundreds of guests partying for a week, or longer. You may, therefore, require more than one “bling” outfit to see you through the festivities.

Arroding to Indian wedding etiquette, you may choose to wear Indian clothes or the Western attire that would be appropriate for a dressy wedding. The rule to remember is that modesty matters for the temple ceremony. Avoid plunging necklines and short hemlines, especially given that you may be required to sit on the floor. You may also need to cover your head at the temple. “A dupatta, or scarf, has many uses, such as covering your head, bare shoulders or that plunging neckline,” advises Hardeep Jandu, Hong Kong representative for Meena Bazaar, one of India’s premier Indian clothing providers for women.

See also: Attending a Traditional Indian Wedding? Here’s Exactly What to Wear as a Guest

Indian wedding tradition

Whilst the colours black and white are associated with funerals and mourning, guests can wear either colour if their clothes are “festive looking,” explains Hardeep. “The more discerning female guest will still avoid wearing a shade of red, which is the traditional bridal colour.”

What gifts to give at an Indian Wedding

There are three little words that are likely to appear on many an Indian wedding invitation: “No gifts, please.” However, this doesn’t mean that you should turn up empty-handed; rather, in line with traditional Indian wedding etiquette, you are expected to give money to the bride and groom. With hundreds of guests in attendance, the couple will have a hard time figuring out where to store multiple toasters and photo frames. Money is therefore considered to be a useful gift.

Whatever the amount of money given, it should always be given in uneven amounts, ending in the number ‘one’, which signifies good luck. The money is presented in a decorative coloured envelope.

A note of warning if you are asked to give a speech at an Indian wedding that is likely to include numerous conservative relatives and family friends – “Avoid any mention of previous girlfriends or the groom’s drinking habits. His pranks may be hilarious to you but Aunty may not be impressed!”, suggests one experienced guest.

Western Wedding Etiquette

Compared to their Asian counterparts, Western weddings are much less superstitious, though there are still traditions that are upheld today, Sonya advises. Whilst the wedding programme may be different depending on the nationality and religious beliefs of the couple, guest protocol is generally the same.

“If you have been invited to a Western wedding, remember to RSVP”, says Sonya. According to western wedding traditions, on the day, you should arrive and take your seat a few minutes before the ceremony starts, bearing in mind that the front rows are generally reserved for close family or friends, with the very first seats reserved for the bridal party.

family on wedding day

During the wedding reception, remember to sit at your assigned table. “The bride and groom have spent a lot of time considering who should sit where, so respecting this is important,” advises Sonya. Note: it is inappropriate to bring guests unless they are specifically invited, so if you are single, confirm ahead of time whether you’re allowed to bring a date.

Read more: Why is Cake Cutting so Important?

couple cutting cake as part of wedding tradition

At some point during the reception, the bride will toss her bouquet over her head for single women to compete in catching. According to tradition, the woman who catches the bouquet will be next in line to marry.

But if you’ve made the almighty mistake of dressing in white, the colour reserved for the bride on her special day, expect to have a lot more than a bouquet thrown at you!

What to Wear to a Western Wedding

In terms of what to wear, the level of formality, from casual to tuxedo, is often mentioned in the wedding invitation.

While some couples may appreciate money as a wedding gift, others may find it impersonal. Sonya says, “Some couples sign up on a gift registry. If not, consider a thoughtful gift that will be useful to the couple.”

If you’re attending a wedding not of your own culture, the gift of good manners goes a long way. Do your homework, be considerate and, to be the perfect wedding guest, wholeheartedly enjoy the experience – without getting too drunk!

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Angela Baura
Angela Baura is a content writer, copywriter and communications strategist for large and small businesses across the globe that focus on healthcare, corporate wellness, executive coaching, education and families. She has 20 years of experience and is an award-winning storyteller and freelance journalist working for clients like the SCMP. She also writes for publications that want real stories to inspire positive action. Angela is also a member of the 2020 Diversity List, an initiative by the Zubin Foundation. More about Angela on her website www.inkspirer.com

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