The time on my watch showed 6:55pm Beijing time. Exactly 24 hours earlier my involvement in this Uyghur wedding had begun and things were finally coming to a head in the building in front of me. Everybody was arriving to enjoy the final act of this Uygur wedding: the grand reception.
I arrived at the steps of the People’s Banquet Hall about 5 minutes before the bride and groom drove in. It was located near the center of town along the edge of a predominantly Uyghur neighborhood nicknamed “3-8”. It was designed to host both Han and Uyghur events, but it’s my guess that most every wedding booked here was Uyghur.
I have been to a couple different Uyghur wedding receptions and many of them are set up similarly. This particular hall was divided into two floors with a large, open space in the middle. Most of this space was taken up by a dance floor while the rest was filled with large, round tables for the guests.
At the front of the hall was a stage where the wedding musicians would play and in the middle, off to the side, was an ornately decorated section with only one table. It was here where the bride and groom sat along with their best man and maid of honor.
Most interesting to me during my first Uyghur wedding was realizing that I couldn’t sit with my wife. An invisible line divided the entire hall down the middle segregating it by sex. Never did the two meet unless it was on the dance floor.
The gender segregation was further arranged by age, so that the younger and older generations were tables apart. Naturally anybody over the age of 40 sat as far away as possible from the blaring speakers, while those who were younger tended to be more reckless with their hearing. I opted for the middle and ended up stuffing wads of tissue in my ears. So loud!
Finally, segregation appeared in one other way which I expected but was still surprised to see: ethnicity. Most Han present were business associates or family friends, but they were small in number. Nobody on the first floor was Han. Nobody on the second floor was Uyghur. Never did the two meet, even on the dance floor.
Entrance of the Bride and Groom
The party didn’t begin until the bride had finished changing into her white dress. You could ask me why she didn’t just wear that dress to the reception hall but I couldn’t tell you the answer. Once the bride was ready, however, the rest of the wedding blew by so quickly I had trouble keeping up.
A red silk “carpet” was laid at the front of the door with people lined up on both sides. The moment the couple entered, the music started, confetti poppers were blown and the red silk fabric was torn to shreds. It was the most bizarre thing!
Oddly, instead of watching the bride and groom find their seats, many guests played a game of tug-of-war with the silk fabric. The silk obviously tore and each guest was clambering to get their own small “good luck” wedding favor.
Meanwhile, the moment the bride and groom found their seats the kitchen doors opened and food began to pour out.
Eat. Dance. Rinse. Repeat.
I’ve never felt comfortable dancing with another man. Unfortunately for me this seems to be an integral part of Uyghur culture.
The stage in the banquet hall was manned by two men – one singer and one keyboard player (with background tracks) – and they never failed to play songs that drew guests to the dance floor. The tables were stacked with plenty of food but I never got the feeling that anybody much cared. The wedding was about dancing.
Watch video on Youtube
The Uyghur form of dancing looks very simple. It consists of broad arm and hand gestures with very little contact between partners. All it takes, however, is one awkward foreigner on the floor to understand that what looks simple may not always be simple. My focus was so concentrated on the movement of my hands and arms that I didn’t have time to notice my two left feet.
At the appropriate time the music fell silent and the bride and groom were ushered to the middle of the floor. It was at this point that quite a few significant family events took place.
- The wedding rings, which weren’t exchanged during the “nikka” (earlier wedding ceremony), were given to the bride and groom by the mothers.
- The groom’s mother finally lifted the bride’s veil, supposedly signifying an acceptance of the bride into the new family.
- Small gifts were given by the, including a doppa for the groom and a beautiful red silk now worn by the bride.
Again, I was completely amazed by the lack of physical contact between the bride and groom up to this point. There had been no kiss and even while standing for photos like the one below, they didn’t even hold hands.
It wasn’t until their first dance that I finally saw my friends smile and physically touch each other. I was relieved because the straight faces they had been wearing all day did not reflect their usually congenial attitudes. This was their wedding, and it doesn’t matter what culture you come from…I believe this should be a happy day!
The Last Dance
The night was slowly beginning to wind down, and although everything was happening so quickly I realized that I was exhausted. Once the family formalities had been taken care of, most of the old folks were making their exit, leaving the dance floor exclusively in the hands of the younger crowd.
The bride and groom kicked off this second round of dancing surrounded by their friends who were holding sparklers.
Watch the video on Youtube
It’s worth mentioning again that this description of a Uyghur wedding is based on only a couple weddings in one particular city in Xinjiang. More money was obviously spent on this wedding than would probably be spent on most and the format of the city wedding differs from that of a rural one.
No matter what kind of Uyghur wedding you attend, however, I guarantee that you’ll leave with a deeper understanding, appreciation, and respect for the people that make up this half of Xinjiang. I know I did.
Check out the beginnings of this 4-part series on Uyghur Weddings:
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