From the days when couples pledged their troth before a picture of Chairman Mao and read from his "Little Red Book," weddings in China have changed beyond the wild imaginings of people more than 20 years ago.
Today it is a multi-million dollar industry, filled with spectacle and panache. But one which rarely fails to combine the tradition of the style and elegance of old China with arguably the best of the West.
Among those who have turned matrimony into a money-making art is Chen Tao.
Ten years on he still recalls the thrill of the first "modern"wedding ceremony he attended in Shanghai. As a technical school student from a poor inland province, Chen had never seen such a grand party and he was amazed.
"It was a wonderful experience, and the wedding dress was terrifically beautiful!"
When Chen himself married a year after his Shanghai experience, he bought a fashionable wedding gown from Shanghai for his bride. They were the first couple to wear such clothes at their formal wedding ceremony in Yibin, a city in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.
"It made quite a stir in the city!" Chen recalls. Shortly after the ceremony, a lot of people approached the newly-weds wanting to borrow the dress. That gave them the idea to set up their own wedding agency .
In the first year their fledgling company helped organize more than 100 weddings. And today it averages 600 a year. With more than 30 employees, the company has, to date, arranged weddings for more than 6,000 couples.
"Business is brisk, and we have no rivals in Yibin yet," says Chen.
Since 1990 when China's first wedding agency was set up, the industry has developed in leaps and bounds. The knock-on effect has been to boost the growth of a dozen other industries such as hairdressing, jewellery and gifts, furniture and home appliances, hotels and tourism. Official statistics show that approximately 10 million couples register to marry annually in China and spend some 250 billion yuan (US$30 billion) on their weddings. The figures are expected to grow on both fronts.
Zhang Guoliang, an industry veteran, attributes the rapid development of the industry to China's reform and opening-up drive initiated by the late leader Deng Xiaoping two decades ago. This has not only improved living standards, but also liberalized the ideas of many ordinary Chinese.
"Over the last two decades, the industry has recorded numerous changes of both the style and content of wedding ceremonies," said Zhang.
Wedding ceremonies organized by Chen Tao's company generally fall into three categories: Chinese-style, Western-style and a Chinese-Western combination. Of the three, the most popular is the Chinese-Western combination, which accounts for about 80 per cent of all weddings. A typical combination-style ceremony, in Chen's view will have the bride, dressed in white, escorted by her father along a red carpet to the waiting bridegroom where rings are exchanged in front of family and friends. This is followed by a wedding banquet at which the bride switches to wearing a traditional red cheong-sam, a gown with side slits, and her husband at her side toasts the guests.
"At a Chinese-style wedding ceremony, the couple would pay their respects to the heavens and earth and exchange toasts," Chen explains. "This is an important part of traditional Chinese wedding culture."
Zeng Zhihua, a professor with the Communication University of China, agrees, adding: "Industry practitioners should pay great attention to a combination of tradition and reality, as well as relationships between Chinese and Western cultures."
Zhang Guoliang says he understands young people's preference for novel wedding styles. "I've done my utmost to meet their demand," he says. In the years he has been arranging weddings, Zhang has done his best to accommodate even the out-of-the ordinary. Some off-beat ceremonies were conducted on grasslands and some were under water. "I'm planning to organize a bungee jumping wedding ceremony in the near future," he says.
With the rapid development of the industry, the number of complaints over wedding products and services has increased. In 2002, the Shanghai Consumers Association handled 49 complaints accusing practitioners of providing inferior services and products. Last year, complaints handled by the association had more than doubled to 120, up 131 per cent on the previous year.
Experts point out that China's wedding celebration industry has remained at a relatively low operating level. To date, there are no widely recognized brand products and most companies offer similar products and services, depending on their respective interpretation of what comprises a wedding celebration, as there are no generally accepted standards.
In the first half of 2004, the China Women and Children Development Centre organized a national wedding Master of Ceremonies contest, the first of its kind in the country, in an attempt to help improve their professional skills and overall quality.
More than 2,000 professional and amateur MCs took part in competitions in 20 cities before the final contest took place in Beijing on June 28.
The contest has achieved its intended purposes, according to Lu Yanping, an official with the centre. It has not only provided an arena for industry practitioners to co-operate and learn from each other, but also resulted in the establishment of a China Wedding MC Club, a national organization that will lay down a set of industry standards, organize contests and provide training, said Lu.
Even industry veteran Zhang Guoliang marvels at the changes in just one aspect of Chinese life in more than two decades. During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), a typical wedding ceremony consisted of the bride and groom standing in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao and reading from Mao's Little Red Book, a digest of quotations from Mao's works.
"Things are different now," Zhang says. "Instead of political oaths, happiness is now the most important element of a wedding ceremony."