No one has more best friends than Ya Shu. The 23-year-old college student in China has attended 52 weddings over the past two years, working in her second job, as a professional bridesmaid.
As a professional bridesmaid, Ms Shu gets paid by strangers to act as their best friend at their weddings. As long as the wedding goes well and the bride is happy, her mission in a strange city is done. A few days later, she may fly to another city to witness another couple’s sacred moment; again, as a bridesmaid.
“I’m basically doing this for a living now, and this year I’ve made about 30,000 RMB as a professional bridesmaid, which is a lot for a university student in China,” says Ya Shu, who has flown more than 100,000 kilometres, travelling all around the country.
“What young girl would resist the charm of a job that provides the chance to travel while also earning money?” Ms Shu says.
A Booming Industry
Ms Shu is far from the only professional bridesmaid in China’s wedding market. According to Daxue Consulting, China’s wedding industry is expected to exceed 4 trillion RMB annually by 2022 ($850 billion AUD). And due to this massive demand in the wedding market “professional bridesmaids” are becoming a booming industry.
Zhonghua Cao, an expert from the Chinese Traditional Culture Promotion Council, told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV on 13 July that professional bridesmaids are a rapidly growing industry, which is expected to grow by 25% to 30% in the coming year.
“Most people doing this job are between 20 and 25 years old, and most importantly, you must be unmarried!” Ms Shu says.
In ancient China, people thought that single women were innocent and pure and that couples would spread their happiness to their bridesmaids, assisting them in finding love more quickly. This wedding tradition still exists today, so couples are more willing to choose unmarried women as bridesmaids.
Jinru Liang, a 36-year-old bride who hired five bridesmaids for her wedding this year, says she asked strangers to be her bridesmaids because her close girlfriends were either already married or had been bridesmaids too many times.
“Professional bridesmaids are more experienced in executing the wedding process, they are the equivalent of little housekeepers and have to help the bride with a lot of things, and sometimes for various reasons the original bridesmaids can’t come and when time is tight and you can’t find anyone, professional bridesmaids can come to the rescue,” she said.
Ms Liang says her husband is very supportive of the idea of hiring professional bridesmaids.
“Professional bridesmaids save us a lot of work and we don’t want to owe our friends, so we might as well just pay for the most professional person to take care of it, but we won’t tell our parents about it because it’s still difficult for the elderly to accept,” says Liang’s husband Lin Huang.
Many couples cannot find an unmarried bridesmaid of the right age when they get married. According to the 2021 Civil Affairs Development Statistics Bulletin released by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, the proportion of married people aged 30 and over, reached a record of 48.2%, up 1.7 percentage points from the previous year, reflecting the fact that Chinese people are delaying marriage.
An analysis by Chinese media outlet Youth36kr revealed many well-qualified bridesmaids cannot travel to their friends’ weddings due to busy work schedules, strict COVID-19 travel restrictions, and city lockdown policies, so brides are forced to hire professional bridesmaids.
“These obstacles are ample evidence of the strong demand for a professional bridesmaid business,” the analysis says.
As early as May last year, statistics released by Alibaba’s second-hand trading platform Xianyu showed that during May Day 2021, the number of “bridesmaid rental” service transactions on the platform surged to more than 20 times that of the same period last year.
Yuanzhe Yin, the founder of a bridesmaid rental company based in Hangzhou, told CCTV in July this year that the number of registered members on their platform had grown to 50,000 since they launched their bridesmaid service in February.
In addition to the requirements for the bridesmaids to be single, the newlyweds can also specify the bridesmaids’ height, weight, personality, and even education.
“A bridesmaid will ideally be between 155cm and 173cm,” Ms Shu said.
“Before we start this job, we will fill out a form detailing our height, weight, zodiac sign, personality, and special talents and release them all online as well as our photos.
“The main character on the wedding day is always the bride, so you can’t be too pretty, or the bride will worry that you’ll take the limelight at the wedding. Of course, you can’t be too ugly either, and she’ll think you’ll put them to shame,” Ms Shu says.
On a working day, Shu gets up at 4.30 am to prepare for the wedding. She accompanies the bride to take photos and change clothes and may be required to entertain the guests, perform at the wedding or give a toast. In China, many bridesmaids are asked to perform dancing, singing, musical instruments and other talents for the guests at the wedding. A bridesmaid will spend the whole day at the wedding, right until the party is over around 10 pm.
Ms Shu says most brides don’t tell their families that their bridesmaids are hired; they tell people that the bridesmaids are their friends.
“I have a fake name and a fake backstory,” says Ms Shu.
It is uncommon that there are conversations between the guests and the bridesmaids at a Chinese wedding. The guests will not usually know the bridesmaids are hired and if the bride’s actual friends ask questions, the bridesmaids will usually pretend they met the bride in a setting where they would not have interactions with her actual friends, such as at a yoga class or swimming lesson.
“It’s rare that someone will ask you in great detail about your identity at a wedding, they usually default to you being a real friend of the bride, and if there’s a special situation, we make up something that looks very much like it really happened,” says Weijia Ding, who has been a professional bridesmaid for a year.
Ms Shu said some professional bridesmaid businesses earn tens of thousands of RMB a month but she usually earns around 200 to 2,000 RMB a day ($40 – $400 AUD), and the newlyweds generally cover the bridesmaids’ transport and accommodation costs.
“If the wedding is held in the countryside, then the salary is usually 200-800 RMB ($40 – $160 AUD) a day; if it’s in a big city like Shanghai or Beijing, then we usually get about 800-2000 RMB a day, which is a lot of money for me as a university student,” says Ms Shu.
Liangliang Xue, who married last year, says she had to hire bridesmaids because “being a bridesmaid is such hard work,” and it is “quite rare” to find someone willing to get up with her at four o’clock to apply her make-up, take photos and all that goes with being a bridesmaid.
Yuchen Jia, like Ms Shu, works as a part-time bridesmaid and recently completed her first professional bridesmaid order. Ms Jia says she was inspired to become a bridesmaid after viewing a job posting for bridesmaids on the Little Red Book app.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to make money, travel, and observe love!” says Ms Jia.
A dangerous profession
However, there is also a dark and dangerous side to this profession. According to Hu Yang, a senior researcher at the University of Essex, in his 2016 article ‘The dangers of being a bridesmaid in China’, bridesmaids are sometimes subjected to verbal harassment and physical and sexual abuse in traditional Chinese weddings.
Mr Yang argues in many cases, wedding occasions “legitimise the explicit expression of sexual desire for some men which is exacerbated by the excessive consumption of alcohol by both bridesmaids and groomsmen… In extreme cases, some bridesmaids are stripped of their clothes and molested, or attacked.”
Furthermore, in 2016 and 2018, the media reported bridesmaids being forced to consume alcohol at wedding celebrations and in September this year one bridesmaid died from alcohol poisoning after “being forced to drink too much at a wedding.” According to a 2016 article on the China.org website, bridesmaids at wedding parties are forced to perform degrading games and tasks such as lighting cigarettes for guests, making physical contact with guests, and even being asked to take off their clothes in front of everyone, which scares away the bride’s real bridesmaids.
Lawyer Yiqi Jia, of China Weiheng Law Firm, says hiring bridesmaids is legal since it is a new form of labor contract that satisfies wedding practices by assisting with marriage and the related wedding process.
Yiqi Jia would not comment on whether the profession is exploitative or dangerous, and he said he hadn’t had any cases of professional bridesmaids suing yet.
Xuanming Lei, an expert from the China Wedding Arts Professional Committee, says professional bridesmaids are a new profession born out of market demand and are still in the early stages of development, lacking practical regulation and needing further improvement.
“We need to fight for more rights to protect this group of women,” says Ms Lei.
Ms Shu plans to register her own bridesmaid rental company after she completes her university studies next year. In the meantime, she met her boyfriend, who is a ‘real bridesman’ – an actual friend of the bride or groom – rather than a professional one, at a wedding this year.
“Having been to so many weddings, I can’t wait to be a bride myself one day!” Ms Shu says.