Among the various Chinese customs, tea has a close relationship with funerals. The idea that “no funerals can be held without tea” is deeply rooted in the Chinese funeral culture.
The custom of using tea as an offering in ceremonies was documented as early as the Southern and Northern dynasties when Xiao Zixian of the Liang dynasty wrote in the “Book of Southern Qi” that, Emperor Wu of Southern Qi wrote in his will in the year of 493 C.E, that “there must be no animal offerings at my tomb. Baked goods, tea, rice and wine will be sufficient enough.”
Tea can be used as an offering in memorial ceremonies, to the sky, to the earth, to Gods, to Buddha and also to ghosts. And that’s how it’s so closely linked to funerals. No matter if it’s a ceremony held by the rich and powerful or by a common peasant, the fragrance of tea can be found at every ceremony. Tea is not a privilege to the rich and neither is having tea in ceremonies an exclusive right to the royals. For the Chinese people and the minority tribes in China, the ancient custom of using tea as an offering to ancestors and Gods at ceremonies and burying tea with the dead has been kept for the most parts.
There are three ways to serve tea as an offering at a ceremony. You can serve brewed tea, dried tea leaves or symbolically with just the tea pot and cups.
In the Qing Dynasty, tea is a must have item for when the royal family hold memorial ceremonies for its ancestors. According to the royal court documents, 13 tael of Songluo tea was used in the main winter ceremony in 1871. And as recorded in 1879, two catty of Songluo tea was also part of the year-end Ceremony’s offerings. As for the Chinese commoners, it has been a long passed down custom to use three cups of tea and six glasses of wine, or plain tea with 4 pieces of fruits as offerings in funerals. In provinces like Guangdong, Jiangxi, and it’s proximate areas, it’s a common custom to place a pack of tea leaves along with other offerings, or to pour 3 cups of tea in front of the ancestor’s tombstone during the memorial ceremony. Tea leaves are also buried with the dead sometimes. From uncovering the Mawangdui Tomb from the Western Han dynasty in Changsha, we’ve learnt that Chinese people have been burying tea leaves with the deceased from before 2,100 years ago. This is because ancient Chinese people believe that tea leaves clean and dry its surroundings and so leaving it with the dead body would help absorb foul smells and preserve the body.
For thousands of years, Chinese people follow the custom of leaving a tea bag in the hand of the deceased. In the Shou county in Anhui province, people believe that the deceased’s spirit will travel to the Mengpo pavilion to drink the hallucination soup. Therefore, they mix a bag of tea with dirt and leave it in the deceased’s hand before burying him so his spirit won’t have to drink the hallucination soup as he passes the Mengpo pavilion. And in the Zhejiang Province, in order to prevent the spirits from drinking the hallucination soup (also called the Mengpo soup), the people there use fresh leaves and morning dew to make a diamond shaped offering (to symbolize cooked water caltrop). In addition to some coins for the ghost officers, people in Zhejiang also leave this diamond shaped offering along with a bag of tea in the hand of the deceased. They believe that as long as the deceased has these 2 items, its spirit can drink the dew and eat the water caltrop instead of drinking the hallucination soup if he gets thirsty. It is an old superstition that the ghost officers will force the deceased’s spirit to drink the hallucination soup at the Mengpo pavilion. The soup can make one forget about his past life. And it can even make one lose his mind so then the ghost officers can force the spirits to perform hard labor. However, if the deceased drinks tea, he can keep a clear mind and stay alert so he’s not misguided or fooled by the ghost officers. Therefore, tea leaves became an important item that must be buried with the dead.
In a traditional Chinese funeral, tea is also an important “souvenir.” In the Hunan province, when it was popular to bury people in coffins, people there used to fill the deceased’s pillow with tea leaves. This is called a “tea pillow.” The tea pillow has a white cover and is in the shape of a triangle. The pillow is filled with tea leaves (mostly thick and rough tea leaves). The purpose of this is, for one, when the spirit reaches the after world and wants a cup of tea, he can take the leaves out and make a cup whenever he wants; and two, the tea leaves can eliminate the fouls smells in the tomb. In some areas in Jiangsu, people there place a layer of tea leaves and rice grains beneath the body in the coffin. And they also place another layer of tea leaves and rice grains on top of the lid of the coffin. The purpose of this is to keep dry and eliminate odor and to maintain the body in good condition.
Tea is mostly used in Chinese funerals for the deceased. But in the Fuan area of the Fujian province, people there prepare tea for the livings. People in this area have a custom of hanging the “bag of dragon seeds.” Traditionally in the Fuan Region, whenever someone passes away, the family of the deceased has to hire a Feng shui expert to examine the Feng shui. The expert will then choose a “precious land” for the family to bury the deceased. Before they can bury the coffin, the Feng shui expert will place a floor mat in the designated burying ground, as he chants the incantation. The family will then lights the incense and lights and firecrackers as the Feng shui expert tosses fistful of tea leaves, beans, grains, sesames, nails made of bamboo and coins on to the floor mat. The deceased’s family will then collect the items on the floor mat and put them in a fabric pouch, and seal it shut. This bag will be hung from the family house’s ceiling. The bag is called the “bag of dragon seeds.” It is said that the bag of dragon seeds symbolizes the “wealth” left by the deceased to his family. This is because, tea is believed to be lucky by the Chinese people, and that it can shield them from the evil and the demons. Tea is also believed to be able to protect the deceased’s offspring from disasters and diseases and to bless the family with many more children. Beans and grains, on the other hand, is believed to symbolize having plenty of food and livestock for the family to enjoy. And the coins symbolizes that the family will have great and unlimited wealth and that they will never run out of necessities.