Chinese Tea Culture

In trying to explore the tea cultures of other countries, it is difficult to isolate tea from the rest of the country’s culture.  A beverage, especially one as old as tea, makes its way into everything and its use reflects the overall culture of the country.  As the birthplace of tea, China’s tea culture is rich in ceremony and history.  The drink has been part of Chinese life for over 4,000 years.  It has brought great wealth, supported opium addiction, triggered wars, and became part of everyday life.

Tea in a Porcelain Cup

Tea in a Porcelain Cup (Stilllife) by Flicker User Jos Deilis, CC BY 2.0

A fundamental aspect of Chinese culture is Confucianism.  This is a complex set of beliefs that influence many parts of Chinese culture, the largest being the focus on social harmony brought about through each individual knowing his or her place within society and focusing on doing the best job possible in that place.  Tea plays a role in social harmony.  Every Chinese household has a tea set and tea is routinely offered to guests, family, and friends as a sign of respect and love.  Interestingly, in formal settings, it is always the person in the lower social role that serves the tea to the person of the higher social status, like a child serving tea for a parent.

Since tea is considered one of the seven daily necessities in Chinese culture along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, vinegar and soy sauce, it has created entire industries in China around teaware, teahouses, and various methods of brewing tea.  From glazed porcelain tea cups to terra cotta teapots used only for oolongs, there is a wide variety of wares for brewing and consuming teas.  Many of these are built around either the chaou or gongfu brewing methods.  The chaou brewing method is usually done in a porcelain bowl that allows the drinker to both drink the tea and inspect the tea leaves.  There is no strainer, just a bowl with a lid and saucer.  It may be used with serving cups or by itself and is considered an informal way of drinking tea.  It is said that this method was devised as a way for faster tasting by the tea merchants of tea they were considering purchasing.  The gongfu brewing method is more formal and uses a smaller terra cotta tea pot to do multiple steepings of a single tea.  The teapots usually only hold between 100-150 mL or 4-5 oz. The gongfu method varies across regions of China and may also include the use of other instruments like tweezers and various strainers.  Teahouses are everywhere in China and are social gathering places for the exchange of ideas.  Unlike Americans, who either take their coffee to go or bury their head in their laptops at the coffee shops, these teahouses are built around staying to talk and to share a pot of tea prepared by the hostess.

Tea Shop

Back of Tea Shop, Zhuhai Guangdong, China, By logatfer, Flickr, CC BY SA-2.0

Tea also plays a large role in Chinese weddings.  During a wedding, the bride and groom will serve tea to their parents as a sign of respect and thanks.  If the couple wishes, they may do a full tea ceremony which includes serving tea to the rest of the family after serving it to their parents.  Often this could include serving tea to hundreds of people as Chinese extended families are often quite large and all are invited to the wedding.  This full ceremony allows the couple to meet each other’s extended family members that they may not have met while dating.

The idea that an everyday drink can also be given prominence in a special event shows the integration to tea into the lives of the Chinese at all levels and helps to explain why most of their tea does not leave the country.  I don’t believe America has anything like this within our own culture, but given that American culture is centered on the individual instead of the collective society it shouldn’t be a surprise.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we slowed down a bit to enjoy each other’s company over a pot of tea?

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