In ancient China, before the advent of cars or even bicycles, sedan chairs were used to carry people from place to place. Sedan chairs, or jiaozi, were small boxes or rooms big enough to seat one or two people, which were carried by several pallbearers using long poles that protruded from the box. Sedan chairs were mostly employed by important officials and the landed class, who used them as a regular form of transport. The emperor himself had several types of sedan chairs for various occasions, from an extremely simple sedan in which he sat to survey the grounds inside the Forbidden City, to a very ornate one that kept him hidden during public processions.
One could usually tell how important the person being carried was by how many men were assigned to lift and bear the sedan. Very simple chairs required only two men, while more elaborate ones sometimes had upwards of eight men carrying them. The emperor was frequently seen with 16 or more attendants at his sedan.
Sedans also played a part in Chinese weddings. The bride was usually ushered into a bright red silken sedan and brought to the ceremony or to the groom’s family home in the sedan. Because it was necessary to keep the bride’s appearance totally private, she usually sat in a smaller private sedan inside her bedroom, which was then lifted and carried out to the larger outside sedan. This prevented neighbors and outsiders from seeing the bride on her wedding day. Though nowadays bridal sedan chairs have been replaced by the convenience of cars, it is still a typical Chinese idiom to refer to going to the wedding ceremony as ‘sitting in a bridal sedan’.
Most sedans were simple wooden (usually bamboo) structures with two or four long poles used for carriage. More elaborate sedans had silk covers or curtains and ornate design features, such as phoenix statues and dragon emblems. The emperor’s sedan was said to be the most decorative of all the sedan chairs, and it is believe that the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty once loaned his sedan to a peasant bride, instigating the tradition of villagers to rent sedans for use at weddings.