Chinese tea traditions. What tea means for China.

When you hear the word China, which associations come to mind? Mao Zedong? Pandas? The Great Wall? Or maybe Tea?

Before I came to China the first time, I thought that Chinese people drink tea all day long, sitting around a small table with family members or close friends. Especially here, in Shenyang. But I never actually saw them do it. Even at later stays here. So, is tea really a part of Chinese tradition?

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Yes, tea originated in southwest China more than 4000 years ago and have had a healing experience for more than 2000 years.

The word for teas is pronounced differently in different areas of the country. For example, in most Chinese dialects, such as in Mandarin and Cantonese, the character for tea (茶) is pronounce cha. But speakers of the Hokkien varieties along the Southern coast of China as well as those of some languages in Southeast Asia pronounce it like teh. Could this be where the words tea, Tee, thé, té, tè,… in so many European languages come from?

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In the time of the Tang Dynasty (636 – 907), tea started to be also used as a non-medicinal beverage. But its manufacture was very different from nowadays: it was boiled along with salt, then it was cooked in briquettes and then crushed in mortar before brewing. During the Song Dynasty,  the Chinese used tea leaves and tea as powder which was whipped up with water. Since that time, tea drinking became popular for everyone and the process of brewing and drinking tea got the name Song Tea Ceremony. Later, the Japanese included these traditions for their own version of the tea ceremony.

During the Mongol invasion of China, many cultural achievements were lost and it was only during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) that tea traditions were revived. It was at the time that the Chinese started to use only the top three tea leaves of a tea branch for brewing (this method was shown to visiting Europeans later on and exported to the West).

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Until the first half of the 19th century, China produced nearly all the tea to be found on the world market, but – after several wars and revolutions – the Middle Kingdom lost its place as a major tea exporter and even stopped selling tea abroad altogether for a period of time.

Since the 1970s, there has been a revival of tea traditions in China and Taiwan. So the “modern” Chinese tea ceremony is only just over 45 years old and it is still changing and improving. That is why you should not be surprised if in different teahouses you will see different tea traditions.

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Tea has had a major influence on the development of Chinese culture, and Chinese traditional culture is closely connected with Chinese tea. It is often associated with literature, arts, and philosophy and is closely connected with Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Chinese Chan (similar to Japanese Zen) philosophy is also linked with drinking tea.

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Unfortunately, nowadays, to make a tea ceremony has become less popular, especially among the young generation who prefers sweet sparkling drinks instead. But there are several special circumstances in which tea is still prepared and consumed in Chinese culture:

  • As a sign of respect
    In Chinese culture, the young generation shows their respect to their elders by offering them a cup of tea. In the past, people of a lower social class would serve tea to the upper class in society. Today, with the liberalization of Chinese society, this rule is not followed anymore and a boss might for instance serve tea to his subordinates to show their good relationship.

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  • At family gatherings
    When it is time for children to leave their families for work or after marriage, they cannot spend as much time as before with their parents or grandparents. That is why they try to get together every week (usually on Sundays) or during the public holidays for dinner or just to drink tea.
  • As an apology
    In Chinese culture, to serve a cup of tea (especially by a misbehaving child to his parents) is a sign of great repentance.
  • During traditional weddings
    According to Chinese traditional marriage ceremonies, the bride and the groom have to kneel in front of their parents and serve them tea to thank them for raising them. Sometimes, the bride serves the groom’s parents and the groom serves the bride’s parents, which symbolizes the joining of the two families.

As mentioned previously, these traditions are followed more and more seldomly in China and in their place come other “modern” Western traditions. But for the Western hemisphere, tea will always be an integral part of Chinese culture. That is why we want to continue talking about tea and tell you more about the different types of tea in upcoming posts. Not to miss our new articles – read our blog and follow us on the various social media platforms (WeChat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).

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