In China, tea is much more than a comforting hot beverage. The practice of tea drinking is associated with literature, art, and philosophy. It also plays an integral role in self-cultivation within Chinese culture and has long been a part of tradition in China. With a history spanning back more than 5,000 years – Emperor Shennong is credited with inventing and bringing the drink to court – drinking tea is still a vital part of everyday life, occasions and business in China. It’s one thing you really should experience on your upcoming trip.
We recently covered tea drinking like a pro, but here we turn our attentions to tea serving. As with tea drinking, there’s an art to how tea is served. In this post, we provide an insightful introduction, as well as reveal what to expect from service in a traditional Chinese tea house.
Where you sit matters
In Chinese tea houses and private tea ceremonies, even the seating arrangement has thinking behind it. TeaVivre explains the seating etiquette in traditional tea houses:
“Nowadays, few people know the seating etiquette in traditional Chinese teahouse. Conventionally, the host’s left hand side should be the first guest of honor, the importance of the seats are in descending order from the host’s left hand to the right. It is the iron law to follow regardless of the table shapes. Besides, the old and teachers are most revered to take the first ranked seat, among them ladies have the priority when age differences are small. In addition, it would be inappropriate to sit opposite to the host. If it is inevitable, children should be allowed to take this seat.”
It’s all about the first steep
Steeping refers to the preparation and soaking of the dried tea leaves before tasting. After showing the tea and introducing its characteristics to guests, the host will warm the pot with boiling water before tipping this water away. The tea will then be added with a spoon and the pot filled with boiling water again. Once steeped, the host will then use two hands to invite guests to drink as a mark of respect.
Unlike in western culture, where the first steep is washed down with the rest of the cup, expressing your appreciation when invited by the host to taste the first steep is one of the most prominent tea serving rules in traditional ceremony.
Giving thanks isn’t a subtle affair. Gestures for expressing your first steep gratitude vary, depending on whether you are a man or a woman. All must stand, men then hold their fists, whilst women place their palms together before making a bow, and taking their seats once again. Then comes the tea drinking, although not before savouring the tea’s aroma first.
Moderation is the key
Tea ceremonies are all about serving your guests in moderation, and with consideration. That’s the host will never offer a tea cup that’s too full or tea that is too hot. Consistency is important, particularly if more than two guests are being served. The colour of the tea should be almost identical from guest to guest.
Guests have their own Chinese etiquette rules to follow. In addition to expressing gratitude for the first steep, guests must not take large mouthfuls of tea or cross their legs whilst drinking. Guests may also wish to practice finger kowtow. The gesture provides silent gratitude to the host. In more recent years, the practice of finger kowtow has evolved into a simple two finger tap on the table.