A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.
For most of us, the ‘ritual’ of making tea goes only as far pouring boiling water over a teabag, staring a few times, adding milk then sipping. At first glance, there is little ritual and certainly no etiquette.
Add a guest into the mix and you can start adding all the subtle, unconscious computations that affect how we make tea for others.
How long do you leave the bag in for? How many times do you squeeze it against the side of the mug?
Do you theatrically slam dunk the spent teabag into the food waste bin or carefully place it on the little gilded dish you’ve laid out specially?
Do you carefully place the mug down on a dainty little coaster so they can pick it up from the handle? Do you pass it hot-side out to the builder working on your side-return as a subtle acknowledgement of their calloused, heatproof hands?
And it works both ways. When accepting your tea, do you hold it with reverence? Slurp appreciatively? Finish the lot or leave a few sips in the bottom of the cup to hide the crumbled corner of custard cream?
The point is that every little detail of enjoying tea in a social setting is steeped in meaning. In researching this topic, it is clear that the dance of mutual respect is the common thread throughout all of these rituals of the world.
And for good reason. Tea has only been the universally available commodity it is today for a relatively short while. Wars were fought over the stuff.
As with many things we take for granted in modern life, tea was a valuable substance that deserved respect and reverence if you were lucky enough to have access to it.
When preparing it, you’d want to make sure you were doing it right. If someone was making it for you to enjoy, you’d want to make sure you get invited back again!
It’s from here that the formalised, ritualistic tea ceremonies of the world were born, each with their own eccentricities loaded with meaning.
In this series of blog posts, we’ll take a look at some of the better known tea drinking rituals from around the world, and do our best to highlight some of the more interesting customs and the cultural factors behind them.
So make yourself your perfect cup of tea according to the customs of your people and let’s get into it.
What better place to start than where it all began as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE during the Shang Dynasty. Tea drinking has deep cultural roots in China and can be well understood by looking at the phrase cha-dao or “the Way of Tea”.
Cha-dao, is a rich tapestry woven into the fabric of Chinese culture and can be understood as the umbrella under which all Chinese tea ceremonies sit.
At its heart lies a profound respect for nature and its offerings. In the cha-dao tradition, every aspect of tea is infused with meaning, from the cultivation and preparation to the act of savouring each sip.
It’s not a million miles away from how people use the word terroir to understand the myriad factors that contribute to the wine that ends up in the bottle.
But while terroir’s focus ends at the soil, climate, topography, and microclimate in which the grapes are grown, cha-dao goes further by considering the stories of the hands that tended to the plants and even the artistic flourishes of the person brewing the tea.
Tea in China has an extremely deep cultural significance which is expressed through a mind boggling number of separate tea preparation techniques you’d expect from such a massive country.
Some focus on long steeping times, some dovetail with eating dim sum. Some involve extremely skilful wok-roasting ceremonies directly before steeping.
But the most common tea ceremony found across China is probably gong fu.
The gong fu method involves using small teapots or tea-ware and multiple short infusions. Careful attention is paid to water temperature, tea-to-water ratio, brewing time, and pouring techniques.
The first thing to consider is the tea ware itself.
Most households opt for traditional clay teapots, known as Yixing pots which absorb the flavours of the tea over time and enhance the brewing experience. It's like having a teapot with its own flavour palate that is an expression of your family.
Some people also have matching “tea pets” that come in various shapes and designs, like animals or mythical creatures. Over time they will develop their own patina and coloration when exposed to tea.
During a gong fu tea session, tea lovers may pour a little tea over the tea pet as a symbolic gesture or as an offering. This act is believed to bring good fortune or honour the tea spirits. Over time, tea residue accumulates on the tea pet, creating an organic and evolving connection between the tea, the tea tray, and the tea pet.
It’s probably best to leave this part to someone more knowledgable. This video is a great way into the practicalities of making tea in the gong fu tradition.
It also gives you an idea of the reverence placed on tea preparation, even when away from home.
This will no doubt hardly scratch the surface of correct gong fu etiquette but these are some of the more interesting things we found.
Hold it steady
When receiving a cup of tea, it’s polite to use both hands to receive it as a sign of respect. This makes sense across cultures.
Holding the cup with both hands communicates to your host that you understand the miracle that is this final cup of tea and all the steps that had to be taken for you to end up enjoying it.
Guests come first
This will become a common theme throughout this series but it’s considered polite to show respect and hospitality to your guest by serving them first. The host always comes last.
Age before beauty
Respect towards parents and elders is considered a key value in Chinese society and culture. It stems from the Confucian tradition and is reflected in Chinese tea etiquette.
It’s common for people to be served tea in order of seniority so if you’re the youngest in the room, you’ll have to wait your turn.
The Finger Kowtow, also known as finger tapping, is a ceremonial gesture performed as a silent expression of gratitude towards the tea server.
Legend has it that during the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong embarked on a covert journey to the southern regions, accompanied by his ministers. On one occasion, they entered a teahouse where the owner skilfully poured water from a long-spouted pot, rhythmically moving it up and down to prepare tea without spilling a single drop. Intrigued by this technique, Emperor Qianlong enquired about the motion's meaning.
With a smile, the teahouse owner explained that their establishment followed a tradition known as the "Three Nods of the Phoenix." Fascinated, Emperor Qianlong attempted to replicate the same pouring technique, unknowingly selecting his servant's cup.
Ordinarily, the servant would kneel and kowtow in appreciation of this great honour. However, such an act would have exposed the emperor's true identity. In some quick thinking, the servant bent his two fingers and tapped them on the table, mimicking the motion of kneeling and kowtowing.
And so the practice of Finger Kowtow was born. Today, rather than symbolising an actual kowtow, people simply tap fingers on the table as a silent gesture of gratitude towards the tea server.
But there’s more!
How many fingers you use to say thank you depends on age.
If the host is of similar age, you use your index and middle finger and tap with the end of your fingers.✌️
If they’re much younger than you, you just the end of one finger .👆
If your host Is significantly senior to you, you make a loose fist and knock on the table.👊
If the flavour is leaving, so should you
If the tea flavour is fading from the cups, and the host is not adding new leaves, it’s a sign for the guests to leave. It’s the tea party equivalent of saying ‘I’ll let you get on’ when trying to end a boring phone call.
There are bound to be hundreds more details we’ve missed in this post but hopefully it’ll give you a little flavour of the importance that tea culture has in China.
Keep an eye out for the next in this series of blog posts about tea cultures from around the world!