John Massey’s Red Wedding

Wedding2
The newlyweds in 1979

Aard regular John Massey reminds us that the East is Red.


The colour that Chinese language does not have a name for is pink. Chinese clearly perceive pink the same as Europeans do, and have no difficulty in naming it correctly as pink in English, but in Chinese language it is usually referred to as ‘light red’ or ‘pale red’, which is really not an accurate descriptor of pink.

But red is regarded as a propitious colour in Chinese culture, and that extends to pink as well – so pink is regarded as a kind of continuum with red in terms of it being ‘lucky’.

I had absolutely no problem with my bride being clad in a bright red silk qipao, form fitting and split up the sides to her thighs (she wore a traditional European style white wedding dress for the ‘foreign devil style’ church service in the early morning, then changed into the red qipao for the ‘real wedding’, which went on almost endlessly for the rest of the day and half of the night).

But I was utterly appalled on my wedding night, when we finally got to retire to bed in the early hours of the morning, to find that my mother-in-law had been in and the bed cover and pillow slips were all bright pink silk, elaborately embroidered with dragons and phoenixes. Phoenices. Whatever. Hey, Mum, real men don’t sleep on pink silk pillows! Worse, she had added additional embroidery to them herself, which she was very good at, and had sewn coins into them, in order to invoke a prosperous and productive union. So we fell into an exhausted (and in my case heavily inebriated, because of all of the traditional toasting I had to do all bloody day long with black label whisky) sleep under the weight of a bed cover weighed down with bits of the local currency.

My wedding day was an absolute trial, requiring a great deal of stamina. The bright side was that I played a lot of ma jong at my own wedding, and won quite a bit of money. Also, one of my wife’s uncles was a traffic cop – he drove us, and when we got stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the large restaurant where the ‘real’ wedding was to be held, he calmly got out of the car, stood in the middle of the intersection and directed the traffic until the jam was cleared, then got back into the car again – totally unflappable. Plus, members of the large extended family who attended the wedding in their hundreds had given us a lot of money as wedding gifts, and this police uncle had the foresight to carry his service revolver on him, suitably concealed, so he accompanied me as my armed guard when I went to the bank to deposit all of the cash.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

31 thoughts on “John Massey’s Red Wedding”

  1. Pink is desaturated red, so in a way it could be called a pale form of red. Play with the HSB or HSV sliders in your computer’s color selector and you’ll see. When I want to choose pink, I start with red and cut the saturation because I’m an RGB screen guy. If I were a print guy, I’d start with magenta.
    That wedding sounds exhausting. A lot of non-westerners go for both a traditional wedding and a western Victorian era white gown wedding. I remember Sadam Hussein encouraged white dress weddings in Iraq, of all things. I suppose it was part of his secularism. I’m not a wedding person. We’ve been living together over 40 years and still aren’t tempted.

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  2. “Pink is desaturated red” – good comment. Thanks for pointing that out.

    “I’m not a wedding person. We’ve been living together over 40 years and still aren’t tempted.” – I never understand this, but then it’s not my business to understand or not understand.

    In my case, it was made abundantly clear to me that (i) marriage was the only option, if my wife and I were to have an intimate relationship, and (ii) it was forever – if I wasn’t prepared to commit to that, I could hit the road, Jack. I had no objection; I wanted exactly the same thing, not for any religious reason, but because I wanted a feeling of security and belonging together, bound together legally for all of the world to see, and let no one dare try to separate us. Likewise, we have now been together for over 40 years, so I guess the end result is the same, but it could have made some differences along the way, especially in the early years of our marriage.

    There were other reasons. Hong Kong was a deeply socially conservative community (actually still is), and everything just went better if we were legally married. De facto relationships were given no legal recognition at all, at a time when they were already fully accepted in Australia. I wanted my wife and I to have shared finances, so that she would never be put in the position of having to ask me for money, and to give her a feeling of security, so the day after our wedding, we went to my bank together and my account was converted to a joint account in both our names, and we have had completely shared finances ever since – that would not have been possible at the time if we had not been legally married. My employer provided me with living quarters as part of my remuneration package, and would only provide me with ‘married quarters’ if we were legally married. Lots of reasons like that. (But in HK she retained her maiden name, which was a traditional practice among Chinese women that still persists; but when it came to her getting Australia citizenship, she got it on the strength of being married to me and so had to get it in her married name, and her Australian passport the same. That was no problem at all in HK, where having multiple aliases is legally perfectly permissible, but caused problems for us in Australia, where legally you are only permitted to have one name. My daughter has carried this on – she has an ‘English’ name and a Chinese name, which is perfectly OK in HK, and she is registered under the Registration of Persons Ordinance as having both of those names. I had the same myself – when I worked for the government in HK, they gave me an official Chinese name – actually a very nice one; I mean, the meaning of the characters in my Chinese name was very nice, and I liked it. But since I left the government, I no longer use it – it no longer has any legal standing, whereas my daughter’s Chinese name has equal legal standing with her ‘English’ name.)

    Plus there was a lot of suspicion among people in Hong Kong of foreign men trying to ‘take advantage’ of local Chinese girls, and a lot of that was justified, including a lot of cases of foreigners marrying local girls, only for it to be discovered that they were already married to women in the UK or wherever. The Italian Catholic priest who performed the wedding ceremony would only agree to do so if I proved to him that I had never been married before. I had to scratch my head about how to do that – no one issues you with a non-wedding certificate. The school chaplain of the Anglican boys secondary school I had attended came to the rescue – he wrote a letter to the priest assuring him that I had never been married (something he actually had no way of knowing because I had no contact with him at all after I left school, and I was definitely a lapsed Anglican, an apostate, but he did it anyway to help me out.)

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    1. I don’t know if this would have been true when you got married, but these days, if a foreigner is marrying a Chinese person in mainland China, that foreigner is expected to obtain a document from his[1] embassy/consulate certifying that he is not married in his home country, and get that document translated and notarized, before the wedding can proceed.

      [1]At least in the big cities, it is far more common for the foreigner in such couples to be male rather than female. Things may well be different in the countryside, where there is a serious shortage of eligible Chinese women. Not to mention that it is much more common in China for men to have “second wives” than for women to have “second husbands”–the traditional double standard is in play.

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      1. We were married in Hong Kong when it was a British colony and, besides which, it is still a different legal jurisdiction with its own laws, which remain largely unchanged. So Mainland laws don’t apply here now, and didn’t then.

        Having more than one wife has been illegal here at least since the 1960s, probably earlier. It is also illegal in the Mainland, probably so since Liberation. There are some ethnic minorities who have pretty weird traditional arrangements and they are permitted to retain those customs, just like all of the ethnic minorities were exempted from the one child policy. At least one of them is a matriarchal society.

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  3. And yes, the wedding was exhausting. My wife sobbed abjectly all the way back to my place afterwards because she was leaving her mother, which didn’t do much to lift the mood. I was wearing this big red bow tie, which was on a piece of tight elastic around my neck; I’d had it on ever since I left my place in the early morning, and I was getting a bruised throat from it, but every time I tried to take it off to ease the pressure on my throat, my father-in-law sternly told me to put it back on again. He also instructed me in how to conduct myself throughout – like how I should stand up tall and look proud, and all of that stuff. I guess I should have been grateful to him – he guided me through the whole process which, apart from the church wedding, was totally foreign to me; him and two of my wife’s uncles; they were all police officers, and they kept me under pretty firm control. Not that I minded – they welcomed and accepted me unreservedly into their family, and were among my favourite people. Still are. That is not always the case with Chinese families.

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  4. My in-laws also worried briefly that I was just playing with my future wife, but she moved in with me after ½ year and we got married after 2. They weren’t super happy about me being a divorcé and a dad, but they could tell right away that I was a man of steady and sober habits.

    A lawyer once told me that marriage is simply society’s legal package deal for cohabitation, and quite a convenient thing. Nor was our wedding stressful: 40 guests at the summer house, a local Leftie politican as — what’s this word?, a light catered lunch, and when everything was done a lot of the participants went skinny dipping on either side of the island.

    Except for our long-haired male artist friend, who calmly asserted that he had a professional license to look at naked women and so sat on a rock on the ladies’ side, contemplating the view.

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  5. Red….I am told the color of the Ming dynasty was red, so when the court astrologers chronicled their observations of, for instance, novas, they were prone to describe the celestial events they witnessed as “red” in color regardless of the reality, to carry favor with the court as this would be a portent of good luck for the ruler.

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    1. What do you mean by the colour of the Ming Dynasty was red? I can’t fathom what that means. Different Ming emperors wore robes of various colours, including yellow and black. The Ming was (and is) famous for its blue and white porcelain. What was it about the whole dynasty that was red, or did you accidentally miss out one or more words?

      Colour conventions in different cultures can confuse the unwary. When my Dad was in Hong Kong, he kept seeing sparkly blue vans driving around, and said: “I want to ride in one of those pretty blue vans.” Me: “No you don’t.” Dad: “Why don’t I?” Me: “They are hearses.” Dad: “Oh. In that case I don’t.”

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      1. I am a prisoner of the knowledge level of the authors of the texts I read, at least as long as I do not read separate and different explanations of one specific topic by two or more authors.
        This makes me (and others) vulnerable to faulty information.
        (consider the myths about Sweden that abound, anglophones still think Swedes have a higher suicide rate because of something Eisenhower said in the 1950s).

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      2. You can add to that – Anglos think that all Swedes have blue eyes and blonde hair, and are excessively sexually promiscuous, but on the plus side they are also very clean in terms of personal hygiene.

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  6. My Yahoo researches led to info that red was an official color of the Ming as the family name, Zhu, also can mean red. Apparently the Song also considered as an official color, as their dynasty identified with fire symbolism. The Ming did have other colors of importance as the court colors were white and yellow. It is also stated that red was not such an important color in China before the Ming, but that is just one source as was most of the above info,

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  7. Red has long been an auspicious color in Chinese culture, though I have no idea how far back that tradition goes. The Wikipedia article on the subject says it traces back to an ancient Theory of the Five Elements. In modern China red is most prominently associated with the Chinese New Year and the red envelopes of cash often given as gifts (the cash John mentions in the original post presumably came in red envelopes), as well as the Chinese Communist Party.

    Google confirms my recollection that the Pinyin for red is hóng. The most common Chinese word with the transliteration Zhu means “pig”, but the Five Elements theory associates pigs with black and sheep/goats with red.

    During the imperial era yellow was the color normally associated with the Emperor. That tradition appears to have spanned multiple dynasties.

    Also, never give a Chinese person a green hat. Apparently the Chinese idiom said of somebody whose spouse or romantic partner is unfaithful has the literal translation “to wear a green hat”.

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    1. “the cash John mentions in the original post presumably came in red envelopes” – Yes.

      You are right – wearing a green hat signifies that you have been cuckolded. A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is said to have given him a green hat. I have no idea of the origin of that, and neither does my wife. When I first came to HK I had a jungle green Australian army hat that I was very proud of, and it was very good to wear for field work because it was very absorbent pure cotton and gave good head protection from the sun. I got wind of this odd Chinese convention, so consulted my wife-to-be on the wisdom or otherwise of wearing this hat when I was doing field work, and she said not to worry about it, that it was just a stupid, ignorant, crude superstition. So I wore it, and all of my Chinese work colleagues fell about laughing at me, so the hat got deposited in the garbage, and I have never worn a green hat ever since. In fact, it is very hard to find any green hats for sale in Hong Kong – no one will buy them.

      Another oddity is that a man who rents out his wife as a prostitute is called a tortoise. Calling a man a tortoise is an insult. But tortoises are popular pets, and a lot of people keep pet tortoises at home. Buddhist monasteries frequently have ponds populated by small tortoises. I don’t know the significance of that.

      In Western culture, a lot of people have an aversion to bats, but bats are considered to be lucky by Chinese, and they are a common motif in decoration of furniture, porcelain, etc. But Chinese people will still freak when confronted by live bats, because they know they can carry rabies and have been known to bite people – seeing bats here is not uncommon because Hong Kong has a large bat population, with several species, but all small ones – no large fruit bats. When playing tennis at night under lights in areas that are sparsely populated and have a lot of jungle surrounding the courts, I can often hear them squeaking for echo location to target prey species like moths, and see them zoom into the light to catch the moths on the wing and zoom out again. You need to be fast to see them, though – they fly incredibly quickly, and perform skilled aerobatic manoeuvres, and they hit the moths with deadly accuracy.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. So moose hunters and others with camouflage headgear have cheating spouses…
    .
    News: The probability of finding an Earth-like planet with an Earth-like orbital period around a sun-like star is one in four.
    Criteria: stars belonging to F, G and K spectral classes.
    Planets with radius 0.75-1.5 that of Earth with orbital periods 237-500 days.
    Frequency < 0.27 .
    NB most star systems studied by the Kepler telescope were small red dwarf stars (class M).
    Their planets are not believed to be suitable for life for two reasons: warm planets are "tidally locked" and the intense stellar flares erode the atmospheres.

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    1. There is a reason most of the star systems Kepler found are around M class stars. Namely, those are the easiest systems to find by the techniques Kepler used. Kepler looked for transits: systems where the planet would, at some point during its orbit, partially obscure the primary star. This is easier to arrange if the planet is close to the star, but obviously it can’t be too close or the planet vaporizes. Having a shorter orbital period, as close-in planets do, also makes it more likely the transit would occur while Kepler was looking in that direction, and means the orbital period can be confirmed that much more quickly. In addition to allowing closer-in planets to exist in the first place, M dwarfs also have less total luminosity, so Kepler’s telescope would have a higher signal to noise ratio to work with.

      Bigger planets are always better in terms of detectability–aliens studying our star system would be more likely to detect Jupiter than Earth. Bigger planets block more of the parent star for those using the transit method, they provide a larger gravitational perturbation for anybody looking for such a perturbation, and if the planet is far enough from the star, it is more likely to show up in direct imaging.

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  9. Everything you never wanted to know about FGM:
    https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/9ke5ja/female-circumcision-fgm-us-law

    I hasten to add that any form of FGM is abhorrent to Han people, who also don’t practise male circumcision (although I don’t know about the Chinese Jews in Kaifeng). I don’t know but imagine it is also abhorrent to the Hui, who are Chinese Muslims who are now virtually genetically indistinguishable from Han.

    Uyghurs I don’t know about, but I would be surprised if they practised any form of FGM – it seems more a cultural practice in certain countries and cultural groups within countries than one which is universally practised by Muslims. There is disagreement about whether or not it is mandated by Islamic teaching – the consensus seems to be that it is not, but Islam is so fractured (just like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and just about any other major religion you can think of) that accurate generalisation is impossible.

    There are other Muslim ethnic minorities living in China, e.g. Khazaks and Uzbeks. I know nothing about them – they are complicated genetically, culturally and historically.

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  10. That was a good article about your wedding, John. So interesting to read about the blending and contrasts of the two cultures. I also like the photo – the bride looking gorgeous, and you with the “stunned mullet” look of grooms everywhere 🙂

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  11. Thanks AD. “Stunned mullet” is a fair description of how I felt at the time. One of the most obvious cultural differences is that in Chinese culture, the groom pays for and does all of the preparation/organisation of the wedding, so the ordeal had gone on for months, including taking care of my parents who came to stay at my place, having never traveled outside of Australia before (which was difficult – my Dad loved everything about HK and lapped it all up, whereas my mother detested the whole damn thing and everything about it). By the time the actual day rolled around, I was already in a state of exhaustion.

    One big mistake I made was that I was very friendly with an older Cantonese woman and her husband, and she took it upon herself to advise me on the Chinese customs that I needed to observe, and I believed her, not realising that there are major regional cultural differences between e.g. Cantonese and people from Shandong Province like my wife’s family. So most of what she told me about things I needed to do that were ‘essential’, Shandong people regarded as nonsense or just had no knowledge of, and vice versa.

    One classic was this woman told me that I needed to buy a whole roast pig to present to my wife’s parents to signify that my wife was a virgin. So, I was planning all of the stuff I needed to do, with my wife-to-be (WTB) advising me on what to do, and I had this big confusing list of ‘to do’ things. And then I said: “What about the pig? Where can I get the pig?” WTB: “Pig? What pig?” Me: “The roast pig to give to your parents.” WTB: “What? What roast pig?” Me: “To signify that you are a virgin.” WTB: “What? Who told you that?” Me: “Anna Wu.” WTB exploded: “Stupid Cantonese nonsense! That’s private, none of their business! Tell Anna Wu to mind her own business! We are Shantonese, we don’t follow disgusting Cantonese customs!” I didn’t tell Anna to mind her own business, because she was a good friend who had meant well and was only trying to help me, but I was relieved about not having to arrange to buy and transport a large roast pig to my WTB’s parents place.

    Another one was ‘the cake’. My WTB was telling me all of the things I needed to do/provide to satisfy her customs. And then she said: “What about your customs? What do we need to do to satisfy your customs?” I thought hard and the only thing I could think of was a wedding cake. So I said: “I need a cake. A wedding cake.” WTB: “OK, we will take care of that and get a cake.” So, the day of the wedding rolled around, I got up very early and got all dressed up, and arranged separate transport to the church for my parents, and then I went to my WTB’s parents place to pick her up to take her and her sister to the church (yes, another obvious difference). And when I got there, they proudly presented me with this crummy cream cake, the sort you might buy for someone’s birthday, and duly served me a piece. They had absolutely no idea of what an Anglo wedding cake is and what role it plays in the wedding reception. My fault, I assumed my WTB would know, when she didn’t have a clue because she had never been to a Western style wedding. So I had to sit there eating this bloody awful cream cake and pretending to be pleased about it, while getting frantic because we were going to be late getting to the church. We were late getting to the church, and then WTB was faffing around endlessly outside with her veil and her dress and whatever, and finally the big fat bad tempered Italian priest stormed out and yelled at me: “Tell-a your wife that if-a she does not get into the church immediately, I will start the service without her!” Actually getting my wife and her sister into the bloody church was like herding a pair of cats, while I was having a nervous breakdown because the very disagreeable Italian priest was having a tantrum.

    The Mexican priest who baptised my daughter was a much nicer man – I liked him, he was good.

    My wife didn’t find out what a real wedding cake is until decades later, and she still has never been to a full blown Western style wedding, only the quickie wedding of an English friend of hers who married a guy from Nanjing at the marriage registry where we were the only guests/witnesses, and I got to hold the happy couple’s baby son (who had been born ‘out of wedlock’, obviously) during the service, while my wife held our baby daughter. Then when it came to my wife and I signing the register as witnesses there was a lot of confused baby juggling and who should hold which baby while each person signed the register – all very comical. And then we went off for a quiet and relaxed lunch afterwards. My daughter is still friends with their son.

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    1. Lol! I love the bit about the “disgusting Cantonese custom” of the pig! And of course the cake 🙂
      My ex and I had a simple celebrant wedding in a lovely park at Mulgoa, West of Sydney. We went to a fair bit of effort to make sure it was simple and ran smoothly, and avoided most of the “traditions” of Australian weddings. It was a good day, and a shame the marriage didn’t last. But that’s life.

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      1. The uncle who was a traffic cop (now retired and living in the Mainland because it’s cheaper) is a guy I am very fond of – he’s a very simple ‘rough diamond’ type, tough, honest as the day is long, says exactly what he thinks and has a big booming voice. Typical Shandong guy. More than once he has had everyone cringing with embarrassment while he goes on in public in a loud voice about ‘the filthy Cantonese’ and how disgusting they are because they will eat anything (people think that applies to all Chinese, but it doesn’t – people like him have a saying: “If its back points to the sky, the Cantonese will eat it”) – in amongst a big crowd of Cantonese people, of course. I think the only reason none of them ever attacked him was because he was so tough, so they would just sit there glowering and hating him, but too scared to say anything. Used to make me laugh like hell.

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      2. And yeah, I am very much in favour of simple weddings, but I didn’t have that choice.

        I have been to a lot of traditional Chinese weddings, and I’m sick of them. I won’t go to any more. My second Chinese nephew’s was the last, and I felt obliged to go to that, but that’s it, I’m done. They have become even more tedious and excessive since I got married, and are just an absolute trial.

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    2. We were in Beijing for a wedding in 2007. Since the bride and several guests were Swedish, the banquet included a European dish: a nice, moist vanilla sponge cake decorated with mayonnaise and shrimp tails. They kids actually liked it, eating the topping first and then the cake as dessert.

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      1. It is revolting.

        One of the things my wife used to make for her mother and grandmother was ‘sa lot’ (Cantonese for ‘salad’), which was canned fruit salad mixed with mayonnaise – utterly revolting, but they loved it. Well, mayonnaise is salad dressing, so what’s the problem? She doesn’t make it any more because most of the people who liked it are now deceased – draw your own conclusions from that. Coincidence? I think not. 😛

        Another dish that my wife makes that is a HK culinary classic – chicken wings cooked in CocaCola. I detest them, but my daughter, who is normally unerringly trustworthy in culinary matters, loves them. I put it down to childhood indoctrination.

        Another HK culinary classic is ‘yin yeung’ (yin-yang), which is tea and coffee mixed – it is just wrong and detestable, but a lot of Hongkies think it’s great.

        But then I loathe anything ‘sweet and sour’, which just tastes all wrong to me. (This despite my wife’s older brother telling me: “But it’s a well known fact that all foreign devils like sweet and sour pork” – well, I’m one foreign devil who hates it. It took a while for them to get the message and stop ordering it specially for me. I made my father-in-law laugh a lot when I made a Cantonese word joke by changing the Cantonese name of the dish ‘gwoo lo yuk’ to ‘gwai lo yuk’, which means ‘foreign devil meat’, which carries the dual possible meanings of meat eaten by foreign devils, and the cannibalistic consumption of the flesh of foreign devils).

        I detest roast pork eaten with apple sauce. I detest roast turkey eaten with cranberry sauce. I think pineapple on a pizza is an abomination. Hawaiian anything is awful. I detest mayonnaise on anything – for me, salad dressing is some olive oil and vinegar, preferably with a bit of raw garlic, or maybe a blue cheese dressing. So I think I’m on the extreme aversion side to anything that combines savoury flavours with fruit or anything sweet.

        To me, the culinary rules are very clear – first you eat savoury dishes, and then you might complete the meal with something sweet, but never the twain shall meet in the same dish. A lot of Chinese people were obviously not taught the rules.

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      2. I’m with you on the mayonnaise, John. I am of the school that wonders why anybody would ruin a perfectly good sandwich by putting mayonnaise on it. Which too many Americans do.

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