China (Global Voices) – Teasing the bride and groom on their wedding day is part of Chinese marriage custom. However, in recent years, that custom has been twisted in an alarming way in mainland China to include groomsmen sexually assaulting bridesmaids.
The trend is in the spotlight thanks to two recent cases. The first is a viral video (content is disturbing) circulating on Chinese social media. The video shows a bridesmaid being restrained and sexually assaulted by two men in a vehicle in Xi’an city. The woman screams and struggles while the two men forcibly take off her underwear, laugh and command her to “make sex noises”.
The video was uploaded to social media on June 8 and went viral. Two days later on June 10, Xi’an police took a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old into custody; the victim, however, said she did not want to pursue the case against them.
Very often, the bridesmaids refrain from reporting the assault to the police as they don’t want to “taint” their best friend’s marriage with a criminal investigation. Moreover, it’s likely the groomsmen or wedding guests would defend the assault claiming that it was part of the Chinese custom to “naohun” (闹婚) — which literally means “to make turbulence at a wedding”.
However, the concept of bridesmaids is very much Western, not Chinese. If you take a close look at the Chinese wedding custom, the Chinese bride is assisted by a “wedding master” (喜娘/大妗) who is supposed to know all the ritualistic etiquette. Marriage was mostly by arrangement in China until the late 1900s. It is customary for wedding guests to compel the groom into drinking as well as to tease the bride to “encourage” them for their first night together. In some regions, wealthy families would hire prostitutes to entertain the guests, but that was not part of the customary practice.
But now, the “naohun” custom has somehow provided an excuse for sexual assault and harassment during wedding.
‘A high risk role — sexual harassment, rape and now death’
Another recent case of “naohun” taken to disturbing lengths ended in tragedy on June 13 in Guangzhou with the death of one of the bridesmaids.
According to witness accounts as reported by local media outlets, after the groomsmen handed over the customary red packet gift for the bride’s family, the family opened the door. The men rushed in and chased after the bridesmaids who ran upstairs to hide. One of the bridesmaids who hid on the fourth floor was killed when she fell from a balcony.
Though the case is still under investigation, netizens could not help but associate the bridesmaid’s death with “naohun”. Below are some comments in a news thread on Chinese social media platform Weibo:
“Bridesmaid is such a high risk role — sexual harassment, rape and now death.”
“Accident? How could she fall if no one pushed her? Sexual harassment and groping breasts is not enough? If the custom is so vulgar and harms people’s lives, the government should intervene.”
For the victim, finding justice is complicated
As for the viral video, both state-affiliated news outlets and netizens condemned the two men who attacked the woman. But after local news reported that the bridesmaid had forgiven the two men because they were acquaintances, some turned their anger on the bridesmaid:
“We thought the bridesmaid was bullied and we slammed the men online, now she doesn’t want to pursue the case.”
“If you really want to be touched, please act happy in future videos. Don’t misguide us.”
Some were more sympathetic towards the bridesmaid’s decision. Weibo user “I love Google” commented on a news thread:
“Do you want to know why the victim does not want to pursue the case? Because they have a kinship affiliation. The other side must have mobilized social pressure, accusing the victim of making them lose face and she probably couldn’t stay in the local community if she pursued the case. However, the case is criminal in nature. Even if the victim does not want to pursue, authorities can file charges. The police and prosecutors should perform their duty.”
Lawyer Ye Xuefei also argued in legal terms that the police should pursue criminal charges against the two suspects regardless of the bridesmaid’s decision:
“Judging from the video, the two men allegedly committed sexual assault. It is a case for the public prosecutor, which means if the public security authorities take that as evidence, regardless of the victim’s attitude, they could pursue it. The attitude of the victim has an impact on the sentencing, not the conviction.”
Wang Zhian, who works in media, made a sarcastic remark on using Chinese custom as an excuse to “forgive” a criminal act:
“How can that be sexual harassment? Teasing the bridesmaid is Chinese culture and tradition and we are ready to apply for it to be declared [UNESCO] Intangible Cultural Heritage. How can we use Western capitalist values to examine Chinese custom? If so, no men would dare to attend another’s wedding.”