A Comparison of Tea Customs in China

For the Chinese, tea and the customs associated with tea consumption is an integral part of traditional Chinese culture. For many, tea is more than a beverage but rather a way of life, representative of their Chinese cultural background, and the classic symbol of Chinese hospitality.

Many guests to Chinese homes will find themselves presented with a cup of tea. This rather mainstream and perhaps unassuming form of Chinese hospitality is actually a rather complex and thoughtful process. Firstly, it is important to make sure that one has done the background work for the serving, and that they possess the adequate tea set and tea leaves. It matters little whether the tea set is ornate or simple, but the tea cups and accessories should ideally all match and be warmed beforehand, usually via soaking with warm water. Moreover, one must consider the tea preferences of the guest and choose the type and flavor of tea leaves accordingly.

On the subject of the act of serving itself, there are customs and guidelines as well. The tea cup cannot be too full, the tea inside not too hot nor too cold. When bringing the tea to the table, the tea tray upon which the tea is served should be supported at its base by the left hand, and the side of the tea tray should be supported by the right. When serving tea, one should be sure to maintain pleasant and cheerful eye contact while serving the tea, using their right hand to place the tea at the right side of the guest. This is due to the fact that the right side is likely to be the dominant side of the guest in question, and thus the tea will then be placed in the most convenient position. The guest is then encouraged to take the tea in both hands, take small sips of the tea, and compliment the flavor of the tea. In this way, it is evident that the Chinese tea-serving customs is a procedure focused on the comfort and happiness of the guest.

Of course, tea customs in China are far more varied than the mainstream example given above. Many of the ethnic minorities in China have fascinating tea customs unique to their culture. For example, the Miao and Hui ethnic groups of southwestern China prepare their tea with a combination of pepper, walnuts, and/or salt in a small canister that is heated above a fire. This method produces a very strong and concentrated tea said to have great health benefits and even healing properties. Also in the southwest, the Blang peoples boil their tea inside bamboo stalks, producing a very unforgettable flavor. Finally, the Yugur of northwest China are said to partake in the practice of “three teas, one meal,” where they only eat one formal meal a day. The three “teas,” which serve as their main source of sustenance throughout the day, are actually stews made out of a tea base. These unique tea customs, of which the above are only a few out of many examples, are not only incredibly fascinating in their variety and creativity, but are undoubtably very significant in China’s collective cultural identity. Tea, in and and all of its forms, is vital to China.

It has become apparent that there are a myriad of tea customs rooted in within the mosaic of Chinese tradition. However, there are some who sense that this vibrant and Chinese tradition is beginning to fade away. In the increasingly faster paced rhythm of Chinese lives, portable, instant teas are becoming more popular than ever. Recently, a company based in Hubei, China has created a form of instant tea packaged in paper cups. This company claims that not only will their product produce authentic brewed tea instantly with the mere addition of hot or cold water, but that the paper cups with instant tea can be used multiple times before being discarded. Their invention has not only attracted mass attention in its home country, but abroad in Russia and Korea as well, where there have been sales reaching one hundred million Chinese yuan. To many tea traditionalists, this news is rather alarming.

However, despite these developments in tea technology, the fears regarding a complete disappearance of traditional tea culture are largely unfounded. The traditional tea enthusiast community is a passionate and active one, often holding fairs on traditional tea culture and customs in different cities across China. All in all, traditional Chinese tea is still very much seen as an integral part of the Chinese image. For example, traditional Chinese tea is served to visiting foreign officials, and it often makes a strong impression. The celebrated American politician and diplomat, Henry Kissinger, requested to drink the same famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea he had ten years prior. This is an excellent example of the lasting power of traditional Chinese tea in the human consciousness, and proof that traditional Chinese tea and tea customs are not in any danger of disappearing any time soon.