BEIJING — Business was booming the other day at the Paris Marriage Plaza Photo Studio on one of this city's major shopping avenues. A young bride swept across the room in what appeared to be a Scarlett O'Hara fantasy outfit--a rustling taffeta dress festooned with bright yellow ribbons. A groom entered, dressed like a drum major.
Upstairs in a small studio, chemical engineer Wei Lieyu, 30, and his betrothed, co-worker Hao Shuhong, 28, posed stiffly on the "library" set. Surrounded by bookshelves, the bride stood beside her future husband and gazed down respectfully as he assumed a classic scholarly pose reading . . . the Chinese-language edition of Cosmopolitan magazine.
"Great! Not bad! Super!" photographer Chu Kuo-Chi chattered, encouraging the nervous couple, who had paid several months' combined salary for the photo session. Moments later they were posing on the "Garden of Eden" set.
The divorce rate is up in China. But the institution of marriage has never been more profitable for the proliferating array of photo studios, limousine services, banquet halls and starter furniture stores that cater to the soon-to-be-hitched.
After decades in which the Communist government stressed stark simplicity in marriage rites, the big, expensive wedding is back as one of China's most potent status symbols. After 15 years of rapid economic growth, many Chinese families now have enough disposable income to stage lavish productions for important milestones, such as marriage, childbirth and funerals.
At least part of the explanation for the big-wedding trend is that the younger couples marrying today are the first crop of only children produced by the country's "one child" population-control policy initiated in the 1970s. As a result, doting parents and grandparents are often willing to spend vast sums--by Chinese standards--to launch their precious progeny on the bridal path.
On fashionable Dongdan Street in Beijing, the Purple House Wedding Celebration Co. does a thriving business selling wedding packages for $500, including music, decorations and a videotape of the ceremony.
According to the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily newspaper, it is not unusual for families to spend 100,000 yuan ($12,000) for the big event and associated trappings. Included in the increasingly lavish packages are appliances and furnishings for the couple's new apartment.
Radio comedians joke that the size of the dowry is measured in furniture "legs"--with "36 legs" from a family that supplies a modest collection including, say, a bed, armoires, chairs and a living room sofa. The size can go up to "72 legs" from a family that also supplies the newlyweds with luxury items such as televisions, freezers and the much-coveted microwave.
In bigger Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Dalian--the Yellow Sea port known for its high living and conspicuous consumption--no proper wedding is complete without a convoy of hired limos and a wedding banquet with exotic dishes where guests' conversation is speculation on the amount their hosts spent for each course.
All of this is a long wedding march from the austere days of the Maoist era.
When Shanghai native Liu Kang married during the Cultural Revolution, in 1973, he did not inform even his closest relatives of the match. Shen Cuifang, who married in 1974, recalled: "The neighborhood committee would come to ask what kind of marriage we would have. If they thought it was luxurious, they would educate us to make it simple. One of my best friends gave me 40 renminbi [about $5]. That was all her salary for one month."
By the time she married in 1982, Shanghai native Li Delin said, her gifts included pillows, a dress and a spittoon. "But what I wanted to get was quilts," she noted, "because in 1982, the more quilts you had, the more limelight you got."
For today's wedding guests, the stakes are much higher. Those who cannot afford to bestow appliances and furniture on newlyweds are expected to give red envelopes containing the equivalent of $30 to $40.
A young, single Shanghai woman, Lu Yin, described her expectations in a recent interview. "I will make a list of everything I need, such as cosmetics and a hair dryer, and ask my close friends to buy them for me. I hope other people will give me money. I like to travel abroad. A honeymoon in Hong Kong or even Australia would be nice."
Communist Party newspapers still huff occasionally over the rising costs. A story in the April 14 edition of the Workers' Daily asked in a headline: "Is it necessary for ordinary people to spend luxuriously on marriage?"
After attending a ceremony for a relative in the eastern port city of Qingdao, a Workers' Daily reporter described his dismay over the vast sums expended and the family debt incurred to celebrate the nuptials of a cousin. "Since the economic reforms, people's standards of living have been raised," the reporter noted. "Simple wedding ceremonies are no longer appreciated. People feel they have to spend lavishly."