Weddings gone wrong: An ancient Chinese custom takes a disturbing turn

Society & Culture

On November 18, a man armed with a sledgehammer was captured on video breaking down a door to a Shenzhen residence. But it wasn’t a robbery, because the people inside were expecting it. Those on the outside cheered with enthusiasm.

By smashing the door, this man was participating in one of the many wedding hazing rituals practiced throughout China. It’s all part of a custom that’s spiraling wildly out of control.

Known as “disturbing the bridal chamber” or “rowdy wedding” (闹婚 nàohūn), depending on whether it’s a verb or a noun, these raucous nuptial celebrations have recently received lots of news coverage, mostly due to the injuries involved. The Shenzhen sledgehammer incident turned the wedding into a bloody scene, as flying glass injured multiple bridesmaids inside the house.

Last month in Shandong Province, a groom was knocked unconscious and suffered a concussion when his buddies slammed him into the ground (they were trying to toss him into the air; the thud you hear in the video is particularly jaw-dropping).

And when they aren’t injured, bridal party members are shamed and coerced into humiliating acts. Past incidents — some of many from the past few months — include:

Getting tied to a tree

Getting tied to a post and spanked…

Getting tied to a post and strapped with fireworks, which are then lit…

Getting tied to a post and smeared with food…

…having one’s head shaved, getting sprayed, getting blasted with fire extinguishers (take two), blasted with Silly String, being forced to get naked, smeared with hideous makeup, and getting thrown into the cold, cold sea.

And last year, a young bride in Hainan Province died from choking on her vomit after chugging way too much baijiu, a highly potent liquor.

According to the Huike News Database, 134 wedding hazings have made the news over the past five years, most of them taking place in Shandong (47).

These modern-day rituals are rooted in old Chinese customs. The door smashing, for instance, takes its inspiration from a custom called “taking the bride by force” (抢亲 qiǎngqīn), a holdover from China’s feudal past, when groomsmen might take a bride to her new family whether she was ready or not. A variation of this is the modern-day ritual of “blocking the door” (堵门 dǔmén), an exhausting ordeal whereby groomsmen must bribe and appease bridesmaids in order to access a locked-away bride.

As loud, chaotic, and sometimes perturbing as these customs are, they served an important function in feudal China. The bawdy atmosphere of the “rowdy bridal chamber” (闹洞房 nàodòngfáng) allowed socially constrained Chinese men and women to freely interact with the opposite sex.

From a modern perspective, these rituals can seem puerile for their resemblance to pubescent games like “spin the bottle” or “seven minutes in heaven.” But they tap into something deeper. Shame is the worst possible punishment a collective can impose on an individual, but in China, almost as important as avoiding shame is fitting in, in order to not be seen as “arrogant.” There’s a well-known saying, “People dread fame as a pig dreads fattening up” (人怕出名猪怕壮 rén pà chū míng zhū pà zhuàng).

And this is how hazing becomes commonplace: To ensure no one gets an inflated sense of self, the wedding party is humbled by guests as a way of restoring balance to the community as a whole. It is more common in rural areas, according to Huike, where social networks are less fragmented.

But despite its stated purpose of bringing social balance, there’s an ugly side of hazing in which a mob delights at an individual’s misery. Unlike the debauchery that might go down at a bachelor party, Chinese wedding hazings tend to happen in the middle of the day, while everyone is sober, before the serious business of drinking and eating at the banquet later on.

As it were, these rituals find plenty of defenders, who cite tradition. According to a Shenzhen man who gave his name as Chen, door breaking is such a common practice that local residents are known to exchange their regular door for a broken one as a wedding day approaches. Another local resident would only say, “You wouldn’t understand if you’re not from around here.”

As for the Shenzhen incident? The injured party asked for 60,000 yuan ($9,000) in compensation, but settled for a lesser, undisclosed amount after negotiations. Doors are easy; some traditions are much harder to break.