In China, being a bridesmaid is making the news and causing serious concern. In Hainan province this past September, a bridesmaid died after drinking an excessive amount of alcohol. She was 28 years old. It’s traditional that the bride and groom toast each guest and while doing so empty their cup of rice wine.
It’s bottoms up every time. With so many guests, the bride and groom sometimes hire a professional, someone who will play the part of one of her bridesmaids and drink the many cups of wine for her.
A “professional” bridesmaid
The role of professional bridesmaid sometimes includes verbal harassment, physical and sexual abuse. They are hired to perform “emotional labor,” elaborated by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. This includes fake smiles, engineering a joyous atmosphere, and taking part in traditional stunts that are otherwise considered too vulgar for many.
For a bride, asking one of her friends or family to assist her is simply too much to ask. Enter the professional. Depending on the degree of difficulty of services that they are expected to provide, a professional is paid between 200 yuan and 800 yuan (1 yuan = approximately US$6.30 in 2018) per wedding. Many professional bridesmaids work on weekends supplementing their weekday jobs. Today there are more than 50 “wedding package” companies. They offer professional bridesmaids who would be required to do the bride’s makeup, to drink alcohol, and to fend off any rude guests who may pursue the bride in a little more than friendly manner. All of this along with the role of creating a joyful mood atmosphere at the wedding.
The origin of the role of a bridesmaid comes from feudal China. The womb was seen as a precious resource. Brides were susceptible to kidnap at their own wedding by rival clans or just hooligans. Bridesmaids were dressed up like the bride to lower the risk that the bride might be taken. Legal protections for marriage evolved and the protection from kidnapping role disappeared. Since then being a bridesmaid has taken on a more symbolic role. Still, the role of bridesmaid isn’t always happy or safe.
A dangerous job
A wedding celebration in today’s China is huge. Of course, it’s a get-together of families and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They invite nearly everyone. Having a large number of bridesmaids is a sign of “face” for the families involved in the marriage. The bride herself is often objectified as part of the enormous wedding display. A luxurious motorcade and a huge banquet are followed by bedroom stunts that are replete with sexual and reproductive innuendo. Publicly licking a banana is the sort of stunt we’re talking about. Worse even, bridesmaids are sometimes stripped and attacked or even molested.
Choice of the silence
We see that “face,” pride, boasting, pretending can be parts of Chinese weddings today. And there are even more difficult issues going on. Not so much in large cities but more prevalent in rural towns, up-to-date gender norms of female rights don’t apply and professional bridesmaids may receive harsher, more chauvinistic treatment. Those who mistreat bridesmaids–if reported–are subject to serious legal prosecution. But women coming from more traditional backgrounds in some parts of China are less likely to reveal or report their traumatic experiences. Fearing for their reputation and their prospect of being able to marry a man who believes he needs to marry “purity” and virginity, bridesmaids sometimes choose to remain silent.
Professional bridesmaids may provide an easy answer for brides and prevent the possible abuse of their own bridesmaids. However, lacking proper legal and regulatory standards the professional is at risk. The male-dominant culture still remaining in some parts of China reinforces the idea that the female body can be objectified and abused and can even be for sale.