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Everything You Need to Know about Guo Da Li

Confused about Guo Da Li, the Chinese wedding ritual that sees the groom’s family present the bride’s family with a variety of traditional gifts? Our guide has everything you need — from who should be involved and what to buy, to the meanings behind the gifts and the rundown of the day.

What is Guo Da Li?

Guo da li (過大禮 in Chinese, literally “pass big gift,” also known as guo dai lai) is a ritual that is commonly performed as part of Chinese weddings. Sometimes referred to as “betrothal” in English, and comparable to the concept of “bride price” practiced in many parts of the world, it is a formal ceremony that sees the groom’s family presenting the bride’s family with an elaborate set of gifts and lai see.

With this tradition, the groom shows the bride and her family his sincerity in taking her hand in marriage, and his promise to look after her for the rest of their lives. In previous times, this also marked the “official” betrothal between the couple.

After the guo da li ceremony, the bride’s family would in turn send a thank you gift consisting roughly of half of the gifts received, alongside other auspicious items. This is known as wui lai (回禮, literally “return gift”). Traditionally, the thank you gift symbolises their acceptance of the marriage proposal.

The practice originates from time immemorial, and as with many other Chinese wedding customs is loaded with symbolism — but there were practical reasons for it, too. In ancient times, women moved away from their family home after marriage with little opportunity to visit in the future. The guo da li gifts were a way for the groom to thank them and compensate for their loss.

The tradition has lived on today, and remains a part of weddings in Hong Kong, mainland China and Singapore.

With this tradition, the groom shows the bride and her family his sincerity in taking her hand in marriage, and his promise to look after her for the rest of their lives.

Rundown

Pick a date

Select a date for the guo da li ceremony, which should be between 14 to 60 days before the wedding day. Consult the Tung Shing for auspicious dates and hours.

Prepare the gifts

The groom’s family will put together a variety of gifts, usually presented in packages. This should be an even number, owing to the belief that it is auspicious for weddings (think the “double happiness” Chinese character usually used at weddings). See our checklist at the end of the article.

There is no hard and fast rule on how much money to give — though there is usually a mutual understanding between the families on the amount expected.

Assemble manpower

Guo da li usually takes place inside the bride’s parents’ home. Some of their relatives may be present.

The bride and groom are not supposed to take part. In fact, tradition dictates that they shouldn’t see each other that day.

The groom’s parents shouldn’t be present either, according to tradition. Find a designated “person of good fortune” (see explanation of this special role in our guide to the hair combing ceremony) to represent the groom’s parents — preferably someone female. The groom’s other relatives may be present.

You can arrange for a dai kam je (大妗姐, literally “elderly female/wife of mother’s brother”) to host the ceremony. This doesn’t actually have to be your aunt — they can be any female relative who is familiar with Chinese weddings, who can guide you and your families.

The groom can ask the groomsmen to help out. It’s best for the number of attendees from the groom’s side to be an even number.

The bride and groom are not supposed to take part. In fact, tradition dictates that they shouldn’t see each other that day.

Commence with ceremony

The dai kam je will begin the ceremony by opening each of the gift boxes while saying auspicious expressions.

Upon receipt of the gifts, the bride’s family will partially return the gifts as a thank you — in addition to other gifts they had prepared.

It’s a good idea for the groom’s family to divide the gifts into two sections, making it easier for the bride’s family to return around half of it.

After the ceremony wraps up, the bride’s family can then put up wedding decorations outside the home to indicate a marriage is imminent. Traditionally, the families can only send out wedding invites after guo da li is done — though this is not strictly observed in modern times, given that the ritual only takes place in the two months leading up to the wedding.

Dos

Help your families manage expectations on how much is gifted. The couple can discuss the topic with their parents beforehand and communicate this to the other party in order to avoid any awkwardness.

Get organised with gift-buying and prepping.

Simplify things, if neither families are too bothered about following tradition to the T. Many traditional bakeries and shops in Hong Kong offer ready-made guo da li packages. Just add your main cash gift, candles, cakes and lai see for the dried seafood and “three livestocks” (chicken, pork and fish).

Don’ts

Show up during guo da li. Grooms can accompany their relatives to the bride’s home for guo da li, though they would need to wait outside the property. At no point should the bride be seen.

Eat the Chinese wedding cakes (for brides only). It’s believed that eating the cake signifies the bride diminishing her luck.

Stress out about gift-buying. You can add an “all-encompassing lai see” (that will be indicated as such) which will cover costs of gifts you may have missed out.