Chinese tea culture

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Chinese tea culture
Chinese tea set and three gaiwan.jpg
Traditional Chinese 中國茶文化
Simplified Chinese 中国茶文化
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 茶藝
Simplified Chinese 茶艺
A tea house in Shanghai, China
A tea house in Presidential Palace Garden in Nanjing, China

Chinese tea culture refers to how tea is prepared, what equipment is used to make and serve tea, as well as the occasions when people consume tea to celebrate in China. Tea culture in China differs from that in European countries like Britain and Asian countries like Japan in preparation methods, tasting methods, and occasions for which it is consumed. Even now, tea is consumed regularly in both casual and formal Chinese occasions. In addition to being a type of beverage, Chinese tea is used in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as in Chinese cuisine.


The concept of tea culture is referred to in Chinese as chayi ("the art of drinking tea"), or cha wenhua ("tea culture"). The word cha () denotes the beverage that is derived from Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. Prior to the 8th century BCE, tea was known collectively under the term (pinyin: tú) along with a great number of other bitter plants. These two Chinese characters are identical, with the exception of an additional horizontal stroke in the Chinese lettering 荼, which translates to tea. The older character is made up of the radical (pinyin: cǎo) in its reduced form of and the character (pinyun: yú), which gives the phonetic cue.

Tea drinking customs[edit]

A set of equipment for drinking tea
A hostess serves tea at a traditional Chinese tea house.

There are several special circumstances in which tea is prepared and consumed in Chinese culture.

  • A sign of respect
In Chinese society, the younger generation always shows their respect to the older generation by offering a cup of tea. Inviting their elders to restaurants for tea drinking is a traditional activity on holidays. In the past, people of the lower class served tea to the upper class in society. Today, as Chinese society becomes more liberal, the rule of tea representing respect is blurred. Sometimes parents may pour a cup of tea for their children to show their care, or a boss may even pour tea for subordinates at restaurants to promote their relationship. However, in formal occasions, this rule still remain unchanged.
  • Family gatherings
When sons and daughters leave home due to work or marriage, they may spend less time with their parents, and their parents may seldom meet their grandchildren as well. Therefore, going to restaurants and drinking tea becomes an important activity for family gatherings. Every Sunday, Chinese restaurants are crowded with families, especially during the holiday time. This phenomenon reflects the function of tea in Chinese family values.
  • To apologize
In Chinese culture, people make a serious apology to others by pouring tea for them. For example, children who have made a mistake or have misbehaved may serve tea to their parents as a sign of regret and submission.
  • To show gratitude and celebrate weddings
In the traditional Chinese marriage ceremony, both the bride and groom are supposed to kneel in front of their parents and serve them tea, which is the most devout way to express their gratitude. It is a practice for the married couple to say in front of their parents as they serve the tea, "Thank you for raising us, now we are getting married, and we owe it all to you". The parents will usually drink a small portion of the tea and then give them a red envelope, which symbolizes good luck. Another variant form is that the bride serves tea to the groom's parents, symbolizing that she is to become a part of their family.
The tea ceremony during a wedding also serves as a means for both parties to meet with each other. As Chinese families can be rather extended there may be one or two hundred people at the wedding. It is entirely possible for either the bride or the groom to be meeting some relatives who they were not introduced to during the courtship. This was particularly true in older generations where the patriarch may have had more than one wife and not all family members were always on good terms. As such, during the tea ceremony, the couple would serve tea to all family members and salute them by their official title. Family members drinking the tea symbolizes acceptance of the new couple into the family, while refusing to drink symbolizes opposition to the wedding and was quite unheard of since it would result in a loss of "face". Older generations would give a red envelope to the matrimonial couple while the couple would be expected to give red envelopes to the unmarried younger ones.

Finger tapping[edit]

Four Chinese tea cups

Light finger tapping is a custom for thanking the tea master or tea server for tea. After one's cup is filled, one may knock their bent index and middle fingers (or some similar variety of finger tapping) on the table to express gratitude to the person who served the tea.[1] However, this custom is common in southern Chinese cultures, like the Cantonese in other parts of China. It is only acceptable if the person wishing to express their gratitude is preoccupied with conversation or cannot actually say "thank you" when their cup is filled.

This custom is said to have originated in the Qing dynasty when the Qianlong Emperor traveled in disguise throughout the empire. Servants were told not to reveal their master's identity. One day in a restaurant, the emperor, after pouring himself a cup of tea, filled a servant's cup as well. To that servant it was a huge honor to have the emperor pour him a cup of tea. Out of habit, he wanted to kneel and express his thanks to the emperor. However, he could not do this since that would reveal the emperor's identity, so he bent his fingers on the table to express his gratitude and respect to the emperor. In this sense, the bent fingers for knocking are supposed to be there to signify a bowing servant. One finger is the head and the other two are the arms.

It should be noted that in formal tea ceremonies nodding of the head and/or saying "Thank you" is more appropriate.

Brewing Chinese tea[edit]

Main articles: Tea preparation and Tea culture

The different ways of brewing Chinese tea depend on variables like the formality of the occasion; the means of the people preparing it and the kind of tea being brewed. For example, green teas are more delicate than oolong teas or black teas, tea should be brewed with cooler water. The most informal method of brewing tea is the simple adding of leaves to a pot with hot water. This method is commonly found in households and restaurants, for example in the context of dim sum or yum cha in Cantonese restaurants. Another method is to use a small lidded bowl called a gaiwan. The Hongwu Emperor of the Ming dynasty contributed to the development of loose tea brewing by banning the production of compressed tea.

Gaiwan brewing[edit]

Main article: Gaiwan
Green tea leaves steeping in an uncovered gaiwan

The gaiwan is a three piece teaware consisting of a lid, a cup/bowl, and a saucer. are generally made of porcelain or are glazed on the inside in order to prevent a buildup of tannins, which is a yellowish or brownish substance in tea leaves. A gaiwan can be used on its own or with tasting cups on the side. Gaiwan brewing is usually employed in tea tasting situations, such as when buying tea, where neutrality in taste and ease of access to brewing leaves for viewing and sniffing is important. This method of serving is often used in informal situations, but it can also be used on more formal occasions. Gaiwan brewing can be used for all forms of tea, though lightly oxidized teas benefit most from this brewing method.

Gongfu cha[edit]

Main article: Gongfu tea ceremony

Gongfu cha, meaning "making tea with effort", is a popular method of preparing tea in China. It makes use of small Yixing teapots of about 100 – 150 ml (4 or 5 fl.oz.) to enhance the aesthetics, and to "round out" the taste of the tea being brewed. Yixing teapot brewing can be used for private enjoyment of tea, as well as for welcoming guests. Depending on the region of China the steps of brewing may differ, as well as the tools used in the process (e.g. Taiwanese-style gongfu cha, which makes use of several additional instruments including tweezers and a tea strainer). This procedure is mostly applicable to oolong teas, but some use it to make pu'er and other fermented teas.

Influence on Chinese culture[edit]

Tea has a major influence on the development of Chinese culture. Chinese traditional culture is closely connected with Chinese tea. Tea is often associated with literature, arts, and philosophy and is connected closely with Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Roughly, since the Tang Dynasty, drinking tea is a must for self-cultivation. Chinese Chan (similar to Japanese Zen) philosophy is also linked with drinking tea.


Traditionally tea drinkers were regarded as the academic and cultural elites of the society because the practice of drinking tea was considered to be an expression of personal morality, education, social principles, and status. Increased enthusiasm for tea drinking led to the greater production of teaware, which significantly popularized Chinese porcelain culture.


Chinese scholars have used the teahouse for places of sharing ideas. The teahouse was a place where political allegiances and social rank were said to have been temporarily suspended in favor of an honest and rational discourse. In this sense, the leisure consumption of tea was common in promoting conviviality and civility amongst the participants.Teahouse is not only the by-product of Chinese tea culture but also the historical evidence of Chinese tea history. Currently, people can also feel a kind of humanistic atmosphere in Beijing's Lao She Teahouse and teahouses in East China cities like Hangzhou, Suzhou, Yangzhou, Nanjing, Wuxi, Shaoxing and Shanghai and so on. It is still dynamic and vigorous.

Modern culture[edit]

In modern China, virtually every dwelling — even down to the simplest mud hut — has a set of tea implements for brewing a hot cup of tea. These implements are symbols of welcome for visitors or neighbors. Traditionally, a visitor to a Chinese home will be expected to sit down and drink tea while talking; the Chinese consider having such visits while standing to be uncouth. There are several types of tea: green tea, oolong tea, red tea, black tea, white tea, yellow tea, puerh tea and flower tea. Tea leaves are traditionally produced by constantly turning fresh leaves in a deep bowl. This process allows the tea to dry with its full flavor ready to be used.

Folding the napkin in tea ceremonies is a traditional action and is done to keep away bad qi energy in China as tea was regarded as one of the seven daily necessities, the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Parkinson, Rhonda. "The Origin of Finger Tapping - Chinese Tea History". Retrieved 1 May 2013. 

External links[edit]