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The Art of the Chinese Tea Ceremony - October 2004 Newsletter


When most people think of a tea ceremony, what comes to mind is the highly ritualized ceremony of Japan, where each hand movement is choreographed and each action must be carefully executed.  In China, however, the focus of the tea ceremony is on the enjoyment of company, and on the tea itself. 

The act of drinking tea originated in China.  In fact, the Japanese tea ceremony was inspired by the customs of the Chinese during the Tan Dynasty. Legend has it that tea was invented by the mythical ruler Shen Nung when leaves accidentally fell into his pot as he was boiling water. In actuality, historical data suggests that tea has been cultivated and brewed in China since the Han Dynasty (220 B.C.-A.D. 200). In ancient times, tea was used for medicinal purposes.  It became popular as a beverage in 316 B.C.E. in the area now known as the Sichuan Province. During the Tang Dynasty, the poet Lu Yu helped spread the popularity of tea as a social beverage with his book Chjing (or Classic of Tea), written in the 800’s, in which he set forth the “correct” way to grow and brew tea.  Lu Yu believed that making a proper cup of tea required fresh mountain water and must be served in the appropriate vessel. However, the modern method of steeping leaf tea was not begun until sometime after the 900’s.

Throughout China’s history, tea has been an important cultural activity. It is believed to strengthen friendship and inspire artistic thought. Over the years, it has been the subject of many writers, poets, and artists. The famous poets Li Bai and Bai Juyi both wrote poems on the topic, and the painters Tang Bohu and Wen Zhengming honored the beverage through imagery.

While tea is commonly served at Chinese food restaurants in America, in China, it is rarely served with a meal. That is not to say that the Chinese do not drink a lot of tea. Tea is consumed regularly throughout the day, commonly before and after meals and usually accompanied by some sort of snack or treat.  The Chinese even have teahouses, much like the beloved coffee shops of the west.

In the Chinese tea ceremony, it is important that proper etiquette is observed. Tea is always offered promptly when a guest arrives.  Tea must be served; it is impolite to help yourself. Cups are offered and received with two hands, as a sign of trust.  If sitting, a guest will rise to accept the cup. When you drink, hold the cup with your left hand and lift it gently with your right. In the South of China, people express thanks to the server by tapping their pointer and middle finger on the table and bending them down.  This action represents kowtow (Koutou in Chinese), a bow of thanks. The custom is believed to have originated from the legend of an emperor brought up among commoners.  Wanting to blend in, he requested that they did not kowtow when he served tea.  The bending of the fingers was a silent acknowledgement and way to express thanks.  Other etiquette includes that when serving tea, you should never set down the pot with the spout pointing at someone and that teacups should not be filled all the way, but only to seven-tenths of their capacity. It is said the final three-tenths are filled with instead with love and friendship. Moreover, if the cups are filled to the brim, there is the danger that someone could be burned.

A lot can be expressed through the action of serving and drinking tea. In some areas in China, it is considered rude if tea is refused. In the past, a host would raise and finish his cup to signal to his guest that it was time to leave.

While not as ritualized as the Japanese tea ceremony, the Chinese tea ceremony is still governed by specific rules and procedures to guarantee the server makes the perfect pot. First, it is important to use the finest ingredients and tools in order to ensure a quality tea. Water used to prepare the tea should be from a freshwater spring. If this is not available, fresh tap water will do.  Tealeaves grown at high altitudes (3,000 to 7,000 feet) have the best quality, and are favored. The teapot and cups can be porcelain, earthenware, or glass. However, unglazed pots made from Yixing clay are preferred. These pots absorb the oils from the tea leaves brewed within, which eventually seals the pot and increases the flavor of future brews. Because the clay absorbs the flavor of the tea, a different pot is used for each kind of tea. (For more on Yixing teapots, see our February 2001 newsletter).

Before pouring your tea, rinse the pot and cups with boiling water to cleanse and warm them. Add one teaspoon of loose-leaf tea for each cup and heat until water is almost at a boil.  If water boils for too long, tea will taste flat. Another reason not to overheat your water is that having bubbles in your cup is believed to be aesthetically unpleasing. To a certain extent, the temperature of the water is dependent on the type of tea being made. While green teas should not be heated above 85 degrees Celsius, Oolong or black tea can be heated until boiling. Water should be heated in a kettle or on the stove. Once it is hot, water is transferred into a large clay teapot. From there, it is poured into the smaller serving teapot and then immediately into the cups. The first pouring is not drunk. It is meant to warm and prepare the cups. In the Chinese tea ceremony, the focus is on the tea and the sensations of the drinker in reaction to it. Tea is served in rounds, and in each round time is taken to smell and experience the tea, comparing it to the previous cup. When serving tea, the goal is consistency. Each cup should taste the same. Sometimes several teas are served and compared. For tea ceremonies in the South, in places like Fujian, small cups are used. These cups hold only two to three mouthfuls of tea. In cities like Shanghai and Bejiing, larger cups are often substituted.

Interested in holding your own Chinese tea ceremony? All the tools and ingredients you need are right here at Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen! We stock everything from teakettles to teapots to the tea itself. We specialize in bringing over a unique and expensive collection of Yixing clay teapots, ranging from the everyday to elaborate collectibles. We even have the cups and trays to serve it on. So what are you waiting for? Start enjoying this rich tradition today.


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The Tea Ceremony

Flowered Yixing Teaset (t1380)

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