It was a bright day; there was not a cloud in the sapphire sky.  Our yao was astir as we all dug into our luggage looking for red, the traditional Chinese color of celebration.  Jiang Lu was getting married to Dykeman.  We had come up with a red blouse and a long, red patterned skirt that Peggy had bought elsewhere in Asia, and a red veil of a mesh material that Anrong’s parents rounded up for us.  Several of the village women also came into the yao – our traditional cave-home – to watch the preparation.  When Dykeman finally came over, the best we could do for him was a red blow-up airplane pillow that Peggy traveled with, which we fit over the top of his head.  We girls fell over ourselves laughing, as he stood there erect and still, with a good-natured but slightly bewildered chuckle.

American man and Chinese woman dressed in red to perform a mock wedding ceremony in Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara JohnsonAnrong’s family had arranged this mock wedding so our ethnographic research team could witness and document some of the aspects of a traditional wedding ceremony. Anrong was the principle investigator of the team, we were documenting his home village in Shaanxi Province, and the team was composed of volunteers from USA. Jiang, a native Chinese who was the other principal investigator, and Dykeman, one of the American research volunteers, were nominated by the rest of us to play the bride and groom.  A wedding band was hired, special food made, all of the village was invited, and even people from neighboring villages came to the spectacle.  Anrong said later that everyone had just as good a time as if it had been a real wedding.

A crowd peers down in the courtyard at a wedding ceremony, Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara Johnson

As we dressed up Jiang for the part, she wrinkled her nose in a brief moment of coquetry, and I thought the most striking feature about her is that she is young at heart.  She laughed easily, and when she did, she was like a little nut that cracked open, but instead of a seed, bubbles and froths of giggles came tumbling out.

Jiang is old enough to have had experience with the Cultural Revolution.  She was a city girl, and her intellectual parents were shipped off to the countryside and consigned to hard labor.  For four years she couldn’t live with them, and like many youths, she was made to abandon her studies and work in the fields during the summers.  Jiang and her classmates worked in the countryside as peasants for two years after she graduated from high school. When she says of the peasants, “it’s a hard life,” she knows what she is talking about.  She once worked the land with her youthful strength, felt her legs and arms give way at the end of that strength, felt hopes and dreams drain out of her, and the sharp stab of separation from her family.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe the stories that come from that period of time.  It’s a drama that I can’t fathom no matter how hard I try.  It makes me ache when I think of people as sweet and gentle as Jiang going through such shock, being completely derailed from her life, she and her family being pushed off their tracks, left to tumble down into deep wells no one had imagined to exist.  During those years hers was a life, in an entire country of lives, given over to the depths, like a small pebble flung down a hole, whose only purpose seems to be to report back at the bottom how far such perverse misery goes.

Jiang had excelled in her studies.  When the universities opened again after the passing of Mao and the lunacy began to subside, she passed the extremely competitive examinations for entrance into China’s premier Tsinghua University (where Anrong now teaches).  She was reunited with her parents and began earning the university degree she had so wanted.  As though just awaking from a nightmare in the morning, she and her family got up, rubbed the fear from their eyes, and carried on with their lives.

Outside in our courtyard, a crowd had gathered, chatting and laughing, waiting for the betrothed to emerge.  Anrong’s cousin held the reins of his brother Anju’s donkey, who earlier that morning had been unceremoniously hitched to the grinding mill, his mouth restricted by an undignified wire basket to keep him from indulging in a little lick of millet flour now and then.  Little Donkey, who each day trudges solemnly up the hillside from the spring with water pails secured across his back.  Such a lonely little beast, resigned to his lowly station in life.  But today!  Today Little Donkey was all done up with a huge, red paper bow affixed to his forehead.  His ears seemed taller now, his eyes bigger.  A red saddle blanket draped over his back.  As he stood quietly in the courtyard, waiting like a limousine to carry the bride, he seemed to be aware this was not one of his usual duties.  All gussied up with a blanket and bright bow, he seemed a different creature from the tired farmhand he was otherwise.

A small donkey has a quilt and blanket on his back and a red paper bow on his forehead, dressed to carry a bride to her husband's yao, in a village in Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara Johnson

I had gotten up in the pre-drawn to see the flour being ground outside our courtyard.  This time it was Third Sister in smooth motion at the mill, who had come in from her residence in Yulin City to help the family.  Dressed in her colorful city clothes, with her feet in little nylon stockings inside open-toed sandals, she made an anachronistic picture; people using such antiquated technology surely shouldn’t be standing in nylon stockings and flower-print blouses.  She lives in the city now, but this is the life she still knows, this life of stone and earth, of perpetual movement in which she grew up.

Anrong’s family prepared for our team special steamed breads, huamomo.  When they were set upon our table, we all gasped “Oooo! Wow!” as they were so festive:  bread rolls shaped into well-rendered fish, birds, butterflies and knots, decorated with little blue and red specks for eyes on the animals. These huamomo can get exceedingly fancy.  I could easily imagine being a child in a village and having my eyes google out when these delightful little bread creatures were put on the table.  I felt, even as an adult, the urge to clap my hands gleefully over them.  I ate two of each shape.  Frankly, I could have eaten huamomo until I puked.

Plates full of huamomo bread in fish, bird and butterfly shapes, in a village in Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara Johnson

After eating breakfast and stuffing ourselves, as befits such an occasion, with huamomo and “volcano with snow on top,” which is a peeled tomato topped with sugar, there came a band of horns and percussion playing loudly in our courtyard, and a crowd of people standing, chatting and giggling in anticipation of the bride emerging from her yao. But Little Donkey, standing almost serenely as he waited to perform his duty, seemed as if he should receive more attention.  All the excitement of a pretend wedding, and I was most captivated by a donkey with a bow on its head, little beast of burden, an animal dressed up fancy like the bride, swishing his tail impatiently at the occasional fly. If you’d seen him, you’d have to admit that he just looked so cute.

The wedding band had arrived early in the morning to piece together their instruments. The most gregarious of the group was a horn player with a short horn, which played an octave higher than the other ones.  With long, floppy ears and a large, slightly crooked smile exposing thick upper gums, his manner seemed appropriate to how he played his instrument, opening and closing all the holes on his horn in quick succession to run up and down scales over and over—he blew through that thing with the vim and tactic of a wily mouse running around the living room trying to evade a housecat.  I asked him how he learned his music.  He said that he and all the band members learned their instruments and the traditional songs from their fathers; it was a line of work passed down through families.

Three men with traditional instruments, horns and cymbals, who are part of a wedding band in a village in Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara Johnson

I confess that all of these “traditional” songs of celebration sounded completely cacophonous and nonsensical to me.  I asked if they improvised in their playing, and the man said, “Of course!”  And then I wondered if there was any structure at all to the songs, because it didn’t really sound like it to me.  He explained that, oh yes, there are very particular rules for each song.  And different tonal scales are used for different parts of the ceremony.  So one type was used in the bride’s courtyard, another for the procession, another for the groom’s courtyard, one for after lunch, etc.  We had asked of Papa at breakfast that morning when we saw the band members assembling their instruments in his courtyard, “What kind of music will they play?”

“Music for a wedding, of course,” he replied, as if we were very dense, indeed.

Click here to see video of the wedding music.

But the character who stood out the most to me was the cymbal player, with little red ribbons tied onto each tiny cymbal.  When he sat down in the shade with his cymbals in his hands, he looked off into the distance like a man who need never speak, who can convey everything in the length of a nod, and that, in fact, the racket he creates smashing his little cymbals together is some deep metaphor for a peace that you cannot hear, some vast secret he’s tapped into.

Jiang emerged from the yao and was helped up onto the donkey, who carried her out of our courtyard, and she had to duck way down low to avoid hitting her head on the thick wooden beam above the gateway.  Very, very slowly, everyone made their way up the hillside to the courtyard of Anrong’s parents, which we pretended was the groom’s courtyard.

Woman dressed in red on a donkey with a red bow and villagers gathered round for a wedding procession, Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara Johnson

The band led the way with their incomprehensible musical score, Jiang on the donkey followed, and the villagers came in a disorganized crowd behind her. Though it was just a pretend wedding, and Jiang and Dykeman were still essentially strangers to one another, they knew each other much better than most rural brides and grooms do as they make the procession from one yao to the other at their real weddings.


All of the women in Dang Jiashan village were brides in arranged marriages.  It is still the traditional way in rural China (though to a lessening degree), but in the urban areas this tradition has mostly been cast aside. Jiang’s marriage, for example, had not been completely arranged; her parents selected several men for her from among her male friends, and she was allowed to choose one.

More than excitement or anticipation, village brides wait with anxiety upon their wedding day, curious about this someone to whom they will be bound yet whom they haven’t met, this someone whom they have no idea whether or not they can love or respect, or even tolerate.

When asked, the Dang Jiashan women said, sure, they would have liked to have had the choice, but back then they never had the opportunity to meet any men; they worked in the fields all the time from before dawn until after dark, and they had no money.  So families arranged the marriages.  Usually, they employed the services of a matchmaker. Today, daughters might not marry until their early twenties, but the older village women were all married between the ages of fourteen and seventeen.

The village girls who were married youngest were usually given to a husband whose family really needed another worker in their household, as men stay with their family and women leave their homes to live with their husband’s family.  Historically, northern Chinese customs of marriage and household structure resulted in a curious nature of marital relations.  For it really was not so much the man to whom was given a girl to cherish or harass at will; rather a bride was a gift to her mother-in-law.   Social customs within the household changed and improved during the latter part of the 20th century, and new couples even began moving from the countryside altogether into townships and cities.  But traditionally, it was the mother-in-law who determined a wife’s quality of life.  A daughter-in-law was a household slave, made to do the worst and hardest of the chores, the absolute lowest wrung on the ladder, lower than her own children, and she often suffered a miserable existence full of criticism and chastisement until she acquired the luxury of a daughter-in-law herself whom she could order around and make miserable.  It’s as if these people had discerned that the basic nature of life is one of misery; they’d been constantly beaten down by natural disasters—droughts and floods—and by insensitive, corrupt or incompetent government officials who taxed them beyond their means or required unobtainable quotas of food; they’d been shanghaied into military service from their own fields; they’d been brainwashed and mislead by maniacal leaders and mystics.  This was the natural order of peasant life.  Perhaps the roughness of the mother-in-law relationship was some tiny attempt to feel for once, in just one situation, that you were not the downtrodden; a bid to hold a thread of power over someone else and be on the other side of the fence just this once.  Maybe it was a sort of displaced revenge on the universe.  To be sure, while this was very common, certainly not every mother-in-law was zealous with wickedness; but until recently, it was always within her power, and perfectly acceptable within the social customs, to be so if she wished.

I asked Anrong’s Fourth Sister in a private interview if she was happy with her parents’ selection for her husband. She said, “Although I obeyed my dad, in my heart I didn’t really agree. After we got our daughter, I gradually got to feel he was a good person and he takes care of me and our daughter, and later we fall in love and feel good.”

I felt that my own life, my own wedding, was almost Hollywood compared to the peasant villagers, whose lives are so practical and unsentimental, where romance is utterly irrelevant.  A bride is still technically a commodity in rural China. This is one of the factors that contributed in the past to the animosity between a bride and her in-laws.  She is paid for, literally, by the groom’s family, and it was expected that the family would get their money’s worth out of her.  Because Anrong and his wife met each other at university and continue to live in Beijing, they were considered outside of the village, and his family didn’t pay a bride price.  They did, however, pay for Anju’s bride.

Papa and Mama employed a matchmaker for Anju, but before they got married, Anju and his bride were allowed to meet each other to see if they were satisfied, and she was allowed to meet Anju’s family and see if she approved of what would be her new home.  The bride price for Anju’s wife was 240 yuan cash, two cubes each of millet and wheat, eight meters of modern factory-made cloth, several outfits for the women of her family, and two pairs of quilts for the parents. 

Chinese peasant couple in village in Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara Johnson

Papa and Mama were paid roughly equivalent money and items when they wed their daughters.  It keeps getting more and more expensive for the boy’s parents, Anrong said.  There are now some advantages to having daughters.  Anrong’s family, having five daughters to “sell” and only one daughter-in-law to pay for, made a pretty good net profit.

According to one expert on Chinese culture, there likely will soon be a sharp rise in bride trafficking:  with the one-child policy and the favoritism toward boys, there will be a massive shortage of brides in the next generation.  It is feared that rural areas will witness a dramatic increase in the kidnapping of women for brides, because of both the shortage of women and the upshot that bride prices will become astronomical and unaffordable.

Papa had never set eyes on Mama until their wedding day.  He was eighteen and she was fifteen.  Papa was in on the same conversation in which I asked Fourth Sister about her marriage.  I asked Papa what he thought of his bride when he first saw her.  Was he pleased?  Did he think she was pretty?  Anrong giggled and was embarrassed to translate the question.  He said he didn’t know if his dad would answer.  But Papa didn’t bat an eye.  He said simply,  “There was no other choice.  So I didn’t really think about those kinds of questions.  But after the first glance, I thought, ‘OK, it’s good.’”

Elderly Chinese peasant couple in Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara Johnson

Anrong and his sister laughed at that.  Then Papa went on to tell the story of how it was that he and Mama got paired together.  It was a very long story and Anrong had a hard time trying to keep up translating it to me, but the basic plot is that Papa’s older sister, the paper-cutter with bound feet, conspired with Mama’s aunt, and they were determined to put the two teenagers together, though the matchmaker had different ideas.  It gets very complicated, with conniving and negotiating and surreptitious meetings.  In the end, the matchmaker gave up.  (A factor that lowered Mama’s bride price, because she was selected without a matchmaker.)

Anrong and his sister had never heard this story about their parents’ marriage.  They never thought to ask.  They laughed the whole way through Papa’s narrative.  As the four of us sat together around the table on tiny stools, they slapped their knees and clapped their hands, and Papa chuckled while he talked. Watching them made me laugh, too. Though the light bulb inside the yao was not turned on, as the sky outside darkened into evening, it seemed to get brighter and brighter in the room, as if we all had fireflies in our breath.


When Papa got married, eight people went to Mama’s yao to bring her back.  Because Papa’s relatives were perceived as being of high social status, they hired horses for the procession.  Twenty-four of Mama’s relatives came to the ceremony in Dang Jiashan.  “So it was a good ceremony,” Papa said.

In a peasant wedding, sometimes a bride’s family doesn’t even accompany her on the journey at all, only the groom’s family; she carries out the wedding ceremony in the company of complete strangers.

Papa described for me some of the old traditions of marriage as they were observed at his own wedding.  For one, they didn’t speak at all.  There’s a Chinese saying that if the boy speaks first it’s not good for his family, and same for the girl’s family if she speaks first.  So they just kept silent all night.

In an interview our team conducted with the village ladies, we were curious if young women ever received any kind of sex education.

“No,” they said.  “We were all so scared on our wedding night.  We didn’t know anything about anything.”  And they laughed over this among themselves.

“But,” and they began to laugh harder, “neither did the man!  So we just had to figure it out.”

“Will you let your children choose their own spouses?” I asked the younger women.  This caused some pause. Most of the women accepted the arrangement of their marriage as a necessity because they hadn’t the opportunity to meet people themselves. With peasant life generally improving, at least in Dang Jiashan, the ladies mused that perhaps, if their children were not so burdened with work, maybe …  Some little seed was planted in their brains that afternoon in the yao.  “Maybe…” they said with the tone of one who is saying, “Wouldn’t that be something!”


As our fake wedding procession approached the courtyard gates of “the groom,” Little Donkey could not be persuaded to enter into the courtyard.  Jiang ducked her head down at the gate, but there the donkey stood, stock-still.  The men pulled on his reins, then pushed on his behind, then pulled and pushed simultaneously, but nothing doing for the little beast.  So Jiang dismounted at the gate, and everyone crowded inside.

Click here to see video of Old Man Xiu Xiu's wedding "speech"

Despite this all having been staged for academic purposes, I couldn’t help but feel joyous.  The sheep in their pens stuck their heads through the stick fence and flopped their ears forward in curiosity.  This was an unlikely raucous even in their bleating world.  I thought to myself that this music must be designed to wake the ancestors and invite them to the wedding.  With a gong and cymbals and a drum, and the two horns blowing like frantic elephants, it fit the expression, “enough to wake the dead.”

Enough to wake Death itself.  There was a defiance in this cacophony.  As if to say, “Hey!  You’ve tried to overtake us; you’ve tried to starve us and overtax us and shoot us with weapons of war and revolution, tried again and again to starve us, but we are here!  We’re even multiplying despite your actions.  See here, this is one more union that will cheat you, that will result in a new little voice crying out against your measured odds.  Maybe you’ll take him, but more will come, and you can’t take them all.”

The music reminded me of a swill of birds suddenly rising from the trees, taking off for flight squawking and twittering and flapping.  This was to wake Death itself from its dream of possession, its dream of bodies and souls.  Or here’s a thought:  perhaps Death’s nature is not that of a gruesome hunting creature prowling around for sustenance, for bodies to devour, but perhaps Death is as benevolent as the next god, only he’s narcoleptic and when he falls asleep, his omniscience subsides as he becomes unconscious; no longer being observed and made manifest by an outside observer, people wink out of existence as the tide of sleep overwhelms him. (It would be catastrophic if Death ever fell into a coma!)  And so the small people in the small pockets of the earth raise up their voices like the racket of a flock of birds, blowing horns crazily and banging things together to keep Death awake.  It’s so practical.

Click here for more video of music to keep Death awake.

Whereas for my wedding, I painstakingly picked out the music for aesthetic qualities, classical music that sounded serious and triumphant, yet tranquil and beautiful, lyrical; my family and friends seated inside the church would have been afraid to cough or rustle a paper, for fear of spoiling this ethereal sedation.  It was all sappy and sentimental; I wasn’t trying to wake anybody.  But then, my existence had never been precarious; I had never lived perched on the edge of starvation, wary and suspicious that I need to do something drastic and loud to alert the universe of my presence, of my intention to live.


With my brain rather detachedly cataloguing all these comparisons and differences as I stood as a wedding guest at a fake wedding, outdoors amid the raucous of music in a dirt courtyard, hemmed in by mud-brick walls and surrounded by bleating animals inside stick fences, with an entire village gathered round, I felt foolishly obscure.  It actually made me feel ridiculous—me, this tiny mote in the eye of the world.  This ceremony here in the wilds of rural existence, was also so obscure.  I still can’t get over it.  I can’t get over how much stuff is happening in the world simultaneously.  What was my husband doing that day, I wondered.  Sitting at a computer, either working or playing a computer game, pestering our kitty, eating a bagel for lunch, watering (hopefully) my plants?  What were my grandparents doing that day on their patch of farmland in Nebraska?  What were people doing in a seaside village in France?  What were people up to that day at the Antarctic research station?  Who was getting married in the rainforest in Brazil?  Nobody at home could have remotely imagined what I was doing that day.  I don’t know why, but that’s just weird to me—how itty bitty the spheres of our individual lives are.

Later that night, under a full moon, I walked outside in my pajamas up the short path to sit on the little hillside across from our courtyard.  I could hear faintly the other women still talking inside our yao.  And over the hills in the distance came the sound of drums.  There must be another village over that direction, another pinprick of humanity and all its attendant drama a few dusty folds over from Dang Jiashan.  I assumed it was the wedding band performing for some other occasion, because I came outside alone every night, and this was the only one on which I heard such sounds.  What were they doing?  Occasionally a round of firecrackers snapped in the night air.  I was dying to strike out for the other village to see what they were up to. It was yet another of the many times I would have given anything to be able to fly.

In my moonlit pajamas, I looked back on the day as if I were seeing it in a movie.  And every time the camera focused in on a particular person, the film increased the length of exposure to each frame, so people were laughing in slow motion; people were turning their heads to look out across the valley into the deep blue sky in slow motion, so that the wistful look on their face that had passed in a fraction of a second stayed on the screen—the brief moment of intangible thought was drawn out, that split-second recognition and acceptance of the simultaneity of magnitude and miniscule.

Such small tender lives plowing ancient fields of reluctant dirt.  Small tender lives bonding fate with one another.  Small tender bonds forging through uncertainty, hardship, and the simplest of pleasures, meant to add another little life to our species’ ponderous weight, to this monstrous thing we’ve grown from a single cell.

Peasant woman and her toddler son standing in their cropfield, she with a hoe, in a village in Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Shara Johnson

Witnessing this wedding, this universal phenomenon that yet is rendered so diversely, lends one the brief recognition that we are We inside a huge universe.  It brings a nostalgia for being human, for being these little critters with language and tradition, customs for how to live our lives.  Nostalgia for the simple fact that we’ve existed and perpetuated something much bigger than ourselves, that we’ve kept Death awake all this time.  Oh yes, we were a part of that!

Part of that notion of reality. We awoke each day and carried on.


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