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 drinking was popular in ancient China as tea was regarded as one of the seven daily necessities, the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar. 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 herbal medicine and in cooking.
Tea drinking customs
There are several special circumstances in which tea is prepared and consumed.
As a sign of respect: In Chinese society, the younger generation always shows its respect to the older generation by offering a cup of tea. Inviting and paying for their elders to go to restaurants for tea is a traditional activity on holidays.
In the past, people of lower rank served tea to higher ranking people. Today, as Chinese society becomes more liberal, sometimes at home parents may pour a cup of tea for their children, or a boss may even pour tea for subordinates at restaurants. The lower ranking person should not expect the higher rank person to serve him or her tea in formal occasions, however.
For a family gathering: When sons and daughters leave home to work and get married, they may seldom visit their parents. As a result, parents may seldom meet their grandchildren. Going to restaurants and drinking tea, therefore, becomes an important activity for family gatherings. Every Sunday, Chinese restaurants are crowded, especially when people celebrate festivals. This phenomenon reflects Chinese family values.
To apologize: In Chinese culture, people make serious apologies to others by pouring them tea. That is a sign of regret and submission.
To express thanks to your elders on your wedding day: In the traditional Chinese marriage ceremony, both the bride and groom kneel in front of their parents and serve them tea. That is a way to express their gratitude. In front of their parents, it is a practice for the married couple to say, "Thanks for bringing us up. Now we are getting married. We owe it all to you." The parents will usually drink a small portion of the tea and then give them a red envelope, which symbolizes good luck.
The tea ceremony during weddings also serves as a means for both parties in the wedding to meet with members of the other family. As Chinese families can be rather extended, it is entirely possible during a courtship to not have been introduced to someone. This was particularly true in older generations where the patriarch may have had more than one wife and not all family members were always on good terms. As such, during the tea ceremony, the couple would serve tea to all family members and call them by their official title. Drinking the tea symbolized acceptance into the family. Refusal to drink would symbolize opposition to the wedding and is quite unheard of since it would result in a loss of "face". Older relations so introduced would give a red envelope to the matrimonial couple while the couple would be expected to give a red envelope to younger relations.
How to say "thanks" for tea
After a person's cup is filled, that person may knock his bent index and middle fingers (or some similar variety of finger tapping) on the table to express gratitude to the person who served the tea.
This custom originated in the Qing Dynasty, about 300-400 years ago. At that time, Emperor Qian Long would sometimes travel incognito through the empire. Servants were told not to reveal their master's identity.
One day in a restaurant, the emperor, after pouring himself a cup of tea, filled a servant's cup as well. To that servant it was a huge honour to have the emperor pour him a cup of tea. Out of reflex he wanted to kneel and express his thanks. He could not kneel and kowtow to the emperor since that would reveal the emperor's identity so he bent his fingers on the table to express his gratitude and respect to the emperor.
This "thanks" knock is still in use today in China and Chinese-influenced areas.
A porcelain tea set showing the traditional "three-part teacup". Porcelain is best-suited to green teas since it does not hold heat.
Chinese clay pots come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
More utensils for tea preparation, including a variety of teas.
Brewing Chinese tea
A traditional way of brewing Chinese tea
There are many different ways of brewing Chinese tea depending on variables like the formality of the occasion, the means of the people preparing it and the kind of tea being brewed. For example, green teas are more delicate than oolong teas or black teas and should be brewed with cooler water as a result. For more information, consult the main entry on tea or the detailed description of the Fujian tea ceremony.
The following steps are one popular way to brew tea in a form considered to be a kind of art. This process is more formal than, say, the more casual way tea is brewed for Dim sum in Chinese restaurants. This procedure is mostly applicable to black teas or oolong teas.
Rinse the teapot with hot water.
Fill the teapot with tea leaves up to one third of the height of the pot.
Rinse the tea leaves by filling the pot with hot water up to half full and draining the water immediately leaving only tea leaves behind. (This step, and all subsequent steps involving pouring water, should be performed in a large bowl to catch any overflow.)
Pour more hot water into the teapot and pour water over the teapot in the large bowl. Bubbles should not be permitted to be formed in the teapot. The infusion should not be steeped for too long: 30 seconds is an appropriate maximum.
Pour the first infusion into small serving cups within a minute by continuously moving the teapot around over the cups. Each cup of tea is expected to have the same flavour, aroma and colour. The nature of this procedure almost mandates the use of some form of drip tray to catch further spillage.
Pour excess tea from the first infusion, and all tea from further infusions, into a second teapot after steeping. It is possible to draw five or six good infusions from a single pot of tea, but subsequent infusions must be extended somewhat in duration to extract maximum flavour: the second infusion extended by approximately ten seconds to 40 seconds, the third extended to 45, etc.
This form of the art of brewing and drinking tea is appreciated by many people, including non-Chinese. Many people are enthusiastic about the art of tea; they enjoy not only the taste of Chinese tea, but also the process of brewing it. The tea culture involved is attractive besides for the relaxation it generates, allowing them to purportedly forget all the trouble in their life during the process of brewing, serving and drinking tea. Some people enjoy serving others with a cup of tea not just because they want to share their excellent tea but also their peace of mind with others.