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The Chinese method and tradition of preparing and brewing tea.

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The Subtleties of Chinese Tea Culture

  • May 11, 2009
  • by
In China, whether someone wants to apologize, show gratitude, or show respect to someone, the most simple and cordial way to do this is to offer the person a cup of tea.  It's obvious that tea is a huge part of Chinese culture, and there's actually an elaborate and quite beautiful tea ritual that goes along with it.  The set-up includes a kettle of water that boils over a hot plate or burner, a mini teapot, a medium teapot, as many mini teacups as needed for guests, and most importantly, a fancy, carved redwood drip tray.  Except for the kettle and the medium teapot, everything else goes on the drip tray.  The tea preparation goes something like this:

  1. Rinse tea leave in mini teapot by filling up the pot with boiling water.
  2. After rinsing, immediately pour the water over the mini teacups to sterilize and make them the same temperature as the tea.
  3. Refill mini tea pot with water.
  4. After about 30 seconds, quickly pour into mini teacups and immediately serve.
  5. If there isn't enough tea for every one at the table, the above must be repeated.
  6. If there is excess tea, pour into medium teapot.
  7. When out of tea, the tea attendant will repeat ritual.

This may sound neat and is actually pretty cool to watch the first few times, but I personally find this annoying and a bit of a hassle, and so do the people who I dine with, so we usually do away with this ritual and just ask for a large teapot and large tea cups with regular tea when we can (some restaurants don't allow this).  The reason I find this annoying is first of all, because I'm no tea afficionado and second, the tea ritual takes several minutes to perform, and every time I want a sip of tea, I have to wait for the tea attendant to come around and brew it.  I should also mention that when I say "mini teacup", it really is a mini teacup; it holds about half of what a shotglass holds.  I need more than just half a sip to wash down my grub!  Plus, the large pot of regular tea is usually complimentary, whereas the tea used for the tea ritual can cost anywhere from $1 to $15 per person, depending on what kind of tea is ordered.  Most restaurants who offer this kind of service have an extensive tea list.

Another thing that I should mention is that there is no such thing as tea bags in China, especially grounded up tea leaves.  Tea bags are unheard of as only whole leaves are to be used.  A few Chinese people have told me that when consuming tea, they don't think of tea as drinking tea, but rather, as eating tea because they consume the leaves while they consume the tea.

The traditional way of pouring tea is that the "lower rank" members at the table are suppose to pour tea for everyone else before themselves.  Like a daughter or son would pour tea for their parents and grandparents, and an employee would pour tea for his or her boss.  However, Chinese people have become more liberal over the years, and that tradition doesn't always hold true anymore; anyone can pour tea for anyone else despite rank, but, the person pouring the tea must pour tea for everyone else before him or herself.

This reminds me of a story that my Chinese friend told me and a group of Chinese friends.  she took her Caucasian boyfriend to meet her mother for the first time over dim sum.  In just three short sentences, she managed to convey to us a most horrifying story, "He picked up the teapot... And then he poured tea for himself... AND THEN HE PUT IT DOWN".  My whole group of Chinese friends and I immediately, and genuinely, gasped because it was kind of painful to listen to.  Just a cultural misunderstanding, but still, what a horrible first impression, and such a Joy Luck Club moment (re: the scene where the Caucasian husband pours soy sauce all over the mother-in-law's dish, and suddenly, the wife isn't feeling so amourous anymore).  So the moral of the story is, never pour tea for yourself until you've poured tea for everyone else.

The way to express gratitude to someone who has poured you tea is not verbal, but instead, a slight physical action.  There's no need to say "thank you", you just tap your index finger on the table (some people tap both their index and middle finger at the same time).  This is because it's usually very loud in Chinese restaurants and a verbal "thank you" may go unheard, or your mouth could be full of food or you might be engaged in conversation.  I'm so used to doing this that sometimes I find myself tapping my finger to express thanks even when I'm not in a Chinese restaurant with Chinese people!

If you ever get a chance to visit a traditional Chinese tea house (even better if in China!), DO IT.  Even if only once!  It's neat to watch, you'll get a lesson in Chinese tea, and you'll get to see how it's REALLY done! :)
Tea Tea

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September 13, 2010
Interesting, Though my Tea drinking comes mainly from the English Tradition I went through a period (after Reading the book The Chinese Art of Tea by John Blofeld) of semi kind of Chinese Tea Traditions. I drank a lot of Green Tea and Jasmine Tea and I bought a Chinese Clay kettle and small Chinese Tea cups. It certainly was not as elaborate as you describe here but in my own small way I made an approximation. In Iceland it is also considered courteous behavior to pour the Tea first for others before oneself.
September 13, 2010
Neat! Asian tea cups and kettles are some of the cutest and most unique I've ever seen. I think with many cultures and beverages, be it wine, water, coffee, or tea, etc, it's common courtesy to pour it for others before oneself, but in Asian culture, there's an extra emphasis on it and it's considered really, really rude, almost like one was raised by wolves, if that isn't done. That's not the only quirk of Asian culture though ;)
October 13, 2009
My dear, it's called tea culture and you're supposed to take time for it. That's an art form, not Ice tea at McDonald's ;-) And remember this, the better you are at it, especially on your wedding day, the bigger will be the red packets!!! Good review! I don't mind the time, just not the washing thereafter! So, I only take time for it at restaurants. If you like teabags, you can buy the bag alone and then fill the tea yourself. The quality of tea in the teabags are not as good. Expensive or high quality teas are never sold in teabags! Same for Japanese green tea. That takes even more time but I enjoy seeing the geisha performing their artistry :-)
October 14, 2009
Very true. Well, I'll take the time to enjoy it when I'm at an actual tea house, but if I'm at a restaurant eating dim sum or dinner... I just want my tea already, and a lot of it, too, to wash down my grubbin'! I know what you're saying about teabags. My Chinese relatives all shun prepacked teabags, or any teabags at all. They prefer to put the whole tea leaves into a cup or pot with no filter, and eat the tea leaves along with the tea. I've yet to see geishas performing the Japanese tea ceremony though. Sounds interesting. I guess it's time to Youtube! :)
May 15, 2009
Great review. I actually read it while drinking tea. :)
May 16, 2009
Thanks! I drank green tea while writing this :)
May 11, 2009
I've always loved reading about tea ceremonies and the history. The simple beauty of never being able to recreate a specific moment in time and commemorating it with tea. Excellent review.
May 13, 2009
Thank you! This stuff is fascinating to me and I can't wait to experience more tea ceremonies from other cultures.
May 14, 2009
I took a course in college called "Ancient East Asian Civilizations" that was very fascinating. I learned a lot about the tea ceremonies there. I wish I could remember more about it, though! When you really think about it, the act of preparing tea and serving tea is very zen like.
May 11, 2009
Wow. Lovely review, @devora! It's really got me thinking about other "non-product/place" reviews to do! Awesome.
May 13, 2009
Thanks! I'd love to read your reviews of concepts and practices, too ;)
May 11, 2009
nice one. i'm chinese but i find myself doing that whole 'pour tea for myself' thing quite a bit.. it's just not so strict from where i come from, i guess.. ;p i've never been scolded and all that for it.. XD
May 13, 2009
lol, I guess if I don't do it, it's not totally horrible, but definitely frowned upon.  It's not just tea that I do this with anymore, I do it with all sorts of beverages now, whether it's a pitcher of beer, cocktails, or lemonade.  Just a habit!
More Chinese Tea Culture reviews
Quick Tip by . October 13, 2009
posted in Go China
It's a lifestyle in China and quite a fancy tradition considering at times the tea might cost a bomb! I love it though :-)
About the reviewer
devora ()
When I'm not Lunching, I'm a jeweler, and an all around, self-proclaimed web geek. My passions include social media, the interweb, technology, writing, yoga, fitness, photography, jewelry, fashion, … more
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Chinese tea culture refers to the methods of preparation of tea, the equipment used to make tea and the occasions in which tea is consumed in China.

Tea culture in China differs from that of Europe, Britain or Japan in such things as preparation methods, tasting methods and the occasions for which it is consumed. Even now, in both casual and formal Chinese occasions, tea is consumed regularly. In addition to being a drink, Chinese tea is used in traditional Chinese medicine and in Chinese cuisine.
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