In Chinese customs, the day her son or daughter gets engaged to be married is the day a mother spends years preparing for. My fiancé’s mother claims to have anticipated this day since her son’s childhood, saving up for the ting-hun (or tenghoon), an engagement ritual that includes gift exchange and tea service.
While the ting-hun comes from the older practices of giving dowries and bride prices, today it is simply a symbolic ritual in some Chinese cultures, including those in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Much of the symbolism involved is in the exchange of food — chocolates are given so that you may speak sweet words, sticky rice cakes so you may always stay together, tangerines for luck, and many others. The gifts that take centre stage, though, are jewellery.
Every family or Chinese sub-culture might have a slightly different interpretation of the ting-hun, but many Chinese-Filipino brides-to-be have relied on My Little KanChiu Book as a guide. While I’m not Chinese, my husband is, so reading this booklet was practically required homework — and a huge help.
The ting-hun usually begins with the future groom, his family, and the future bride’s family waiting in a room. A moderator announces both sides’ lineages, and the bride enters the room backwards so as not to leave fortune out the door. Not everyone observes this practice of passing through the doorway backwards, but I did — in 4-inch heels, no less.
The gift exchange begins. For jewellery, My Little KanChiu Book recommends that the bride give the groom a watch, a bracelet or ring, and a necklace with a medallion pendant. The groom’s gifts for the bride include a watch, a pair of Chinese bangles tied with a red thread, a necklace with a medallion pendant, jewellery sets, and wedding rings.
As with many Chinese rituals, the circle is an important theme of continuity, best represented by the bangles and medallions. Yellow gold is often preferred for the medallions, as it is a cheerful shade appropriate for celebrating a happy occasion. The ting-hun has been adapted to modern days, too. While the cake representing the bride used to be smaller than that of the groom, today many couples opt for cakes of the same size, representing equality.
Preparing a ting-hun is culturally sensitive and requires attention to both aesthetic and symbolic details, and the practice is slowly fading away. To the outsider’s eye, it may seem a mere traditional trifle, but to those who experience it, it’s an optimistic beginning on the road to marriage, especially with the symbolic emphasis on happiness, fortune, and eternal union for the couple.
Image opener: Jewellery gift exchange at Kat Uy’s engagement ceremony
Images courtesy of Kat Uy and POH HENG