The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea Etiquette

In the tapestry of Chinese culture, the act of drinking tea weaves a profound narrative. It's not merely a  choice of beverage, but rather a reflection of Chinese values encompassing personal morality, education, principles, and social stature. Beyond its cultural significance, tea drinking also serves as an opportunity for people to connect and bond. Step into this brew of traditions and togetherness as we explore the essence of Chinese tea culture.

An Introduction to the 6 Types of Tea

There is a wide variety of teas available, each with its own unique characteristics and preparation methods.

  • Green tea (绿茶 lǜ chá): Made from unoxidized leaves and is one of the least processed types of tea. It is often hailed for its high antioxidant content and is considered a super tea or medicinal tea.
  • White tea (白茶 bái chá): Made from the youngest and most tender hand-picked leaf tips and buds, resulting in a fresh and delicate flavour. It is one of the most expensive teas due to its laborious production process.
  • Yellow tea (黄茶 huáng chá): Less common than green tea, and is produced similarly to green tea but with an additional step of encasing and steaming. It has a mellow taste and the drying process imparts a slightly yellow colour to the leaves.
  • Oolong tea (乌龙茶 wū lóng chá): A traditional Chinese tea that falls between green tea and black tea in terms of oxidation. It offers a diverse range of flavours.
  • Red tea (红茶 hóng chá): Also known as black tea in the UK and US, undergoes more oxidation than oolong, yellow, white, and green teas. It is known for its strong flavour profile.
  • Puer tea (普洱茶 pǔ ěr chá): A variety of fermented tea that continues to oxidise and ferment until desired flavours are achieved. It is categorised into raw (生) and ripe (熟) types.

With such a rich variety of teas available, tea enthusiasts can explore and savour the diverse flavours and characteristics of each type.

The Way of Tea, 茶道 chá dào

Chinese tea-drinking customs encompass a rich tradition known as 茶道 (The Way of Tea). Offering tea is a significant gesture of hospitality, deeply ingrained in Chinese culture.

It is customary to present tea to guests, and in turn, guests are expected to accept the tea and take at least a sip as a token of appreciation. Respect is also conveyed through tea-drinking customs, particularly from the younger generation to their elders. It is a common practice for younger family members to offer a cup of tea to older relatives, often inviting them to restaurants for tea as a traditional holiday activity.

Similarly, newly married couples demonstrate respect by serving tea to their elder family members. In the past, serving tea had social implications, as individuals from lower social classes would serve tea to those of higher social standing, symbolising the societal hierarchy. Additionally, tea can be offered as an apology. Children who have misbehaved may serve tea to their parents as a sincere expression of regret and submission.

These tea-drinking customs exemplify the importance of hospitality, respect for elders, and the dynamics of social relationships in Chinese culture.

Chinese Tea Etiquette

Chinese tea etiquette can be categorised into 2 main forms of etiquette.

The first would be the sitting etiquette, which places great importance on the arrangement of seats, with a specific hierarchy to be followed. The seating order is determined by the host, with the most honoured guests seated to the left of the host. The first guest of honour is typically seated on the left-hand side of the host.

In accordance with Chinese culture, elders and teachers hold a high level of respect and are given priority in seating arrangements. Among them, ladies are given precedence when age differences are minimal. It is considered inappropriate to sit directly opposite the host, but if unavoidable, children are allowed to occupy that seat.

Adhering to these seating customs helps maintain harmony and respect during tea gatherings in Chinese culture.

The second would be the tea-serving and tea-drinking etiquette. This encompasses a set of customs that both guests and hosts should observe.

As a host, it is customary to serve the tea with both hands, displaying politeness and respect. The tea cup should not be filled to the brim to avoid accidental spills of hot tea. Hosts should ensure that guests' cups are filled in a timely manner. It is also important for hosts to dress neatly and decently, showing their consideration for the occasion and their guests.

In general, tea should be offered to elders first, reflecting the emphasis on respecting seniority in Chinese culture.

As a guest, it is important to express appreciation when invited to taste the first sip of tea. Men should hold their fists, left over right, while women should put their palms together, make a bow, and sit down, before receiving the tea cups. Guests should receive the tea cup with both hands as a gesture of gratitude, respect, and humility.

It is also customary to thank the person who poured the tea for you. Showing gratitude can be done through finger kowtow or finger tapping, which is an informal way to thank the tea master or tea server for the tea.

If the tea server is:

  • Younger or more junior than you: Tap with 1 finger on the table, once
  • Your peer: Tap with 2 fingers, thrice
  • Your senior or an elder: Tap with your fist, thrice

In formal tea ceremonies, instead of finger kowtow, nodding the head or saying "thank you" is more appropriate.

Some other things to note:

  • DO smell the tea's aroma before taking a sip, to show appreciation
  • DO take small sips instead of drinking the entire cup in one gulp
  • DON’T spit out the tea
  • DON’T smoke while drinking tea

Throughout the tea-drinking experience, it is important to show admiration and respect. By adhering to these tea-drinking etiquette practices, individuals can show respect, and appreciation, and create a harmonious atmosphere during tea gatherings.

Tea Ceremonies in China

Tea production and consumption in Chinese culture involve various customs and ceremonies that enhance the experience of tea.

Here are 3 different tea ceremonies that are common in China:

  • The Gongfu Tea Ceremony: The ceremony focuses on precise tea-making techniques and the proper usage of tea ware. Loose, dry tea leaves are passed to guests, allowing them to appreciate the tea's quality and flavour. Water is poured from shoulder height, symbolising three bows to the guests. The tea leaves are "washed" by discarding the first infusion, removing any harshness or impurities. Guests lift their cups with both hands, savouring the tea in three sips, progressively appreciating its subtle flavours and delicate aromas.
  • The Wu-Wo Tea Ceremony: In this ceremony, participants bring their own teaware and serve tea to each other in a communal setting. Equality is emphasised, with no ranking based on status or wealth. Each person takes turns making tea and serving it to three people on their left. The ceremony comprises multiple rounds, concluding with participants packing up their teaware.
  • The Wedding Tea Ceremony: This is also known as 敬茶 (jìng chá), and is a cultural tradition where the bride and groom serve tea to their respective families. Elders are served tea in order of age. The ceremony symbolises respect, gratitude, and the union of the two families. Traditional clothing, such as a cheongsam for the bride, is often worn during the tea ceremony. Etiquette includes kneeling before elders, serving tea with both hands and following a specific order of serving family members. In exchange for the tea, relatives may present gifts such as red envelopes filled with cash or jewellery like gold bracelets and jade pendants, symbolising good luck and acceptance of the marriage. The couple typically puts on the jewellery immediately as a sign of respect and gratitude.

These various processes and ceremonies surrounding tea production and consumption in Chinese culture reflect the significance of tradition, respect, and the sharing of experiences among family members and friends.

The difference between the Northern and Southern Tea cultures

Whilst tea is enjoyed by most Chinese people, there is a distinct difference between the Northern and Southern tea cultures.

In the Southern region of China, the climate is mild, with abundant rainfall and ample sunlight. The tea trees grow vigorously throughout the four distinct seasons, making them suitable for tea cultivation.

Therefore, tea enthusiasts in the South prefer thick and concentrated teas, such as Da Hong Pao and aged white tea as they believe that these teas have a fuller flavour.

In the northern part of China, however, the climate is drier, which is not conducive to the growth of tea trees. Hence, tea lovers in the North prefer lighter teas, such as jasmine tea and black tea. They find jasmine tea refreshing and enjoyable, and they like to indulge in large sips, similar to drinking alcohol.

In terms of tea culture, the Southern region values intricacy and elegance, while the Northern region embraces simplicity and informality.

In the South, there are many tea-drinking etiquettes and distinctions in tea utensils. Green tea is served in glass cups, while purple clay teapots are used for black tea and pu-erh tea. Red tea is traditionally served in porcelain.

The Gongfu tea ceremony has its own specialized tea set, including fair cups, tea tongs, tea boats, tea pets, and tea trays. These delicate utensils add a sense of ritual and enhance the enjoyment of tea.

Furthermore, Southerners will pour hot water into the teacup beforehand to warm up the cups, in an attempt to prevent the tea cup from absorbing the heat of the tea broth, such that the tea served will still have enough heat.

In contrast, the Northern tea culture is represented by a straightforward and robust style. A large covered bowl embodies the boldness and ruggedness of the Northern people. A big teapot is filled with a couple of handfuls of tea leaves, and boiling water is directly poured in. The tea is then drunk directly from a big bowl, allowing the drinker to indulge in its flavours.

These differences between Northern and Southern tea cultures reflect the diversity and richness of Chinese tea traditions, providing unique experiences for tea enthusiasts across the country.

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