Author: Yao Tong
Tea drinking has always been a consistent part of Chinese culture. Its origins date back to a legend that tells the story of how Shennong, a humanoid mythical character known as the father of Chinese agriculture and traditional medicine, accidentally discovered tea. He was boiling water to drink while sitting under a Camellia sinensis tree when some leaves fell off into the water. Shennong drank the aromatized water and found it enjoyable; this is how tea was born.
Nowadays, tea is still regularly consumed, both during formal and casual occasions:
- As a sign of respect: Members of the younger generation usually show their respect to the older ones by serving them tea during family reunions. It is a traditional holiday activity.
- To celebrate weddings: In the traditional Chinese marriage ceremony, the groom and the bride kneel in front of their respective parents, serve them tea, and thank them. Accepting the tea means that the parents approve the wedding, and the process symbolizes the attachment of the two families.
With the secular tea culture, a related etiquette has also been developed in terms of drinking and serving tea. Among the most important rules:
- Never serve your guests the first sip, which is believed to contain chemicals or pesticides.
- Don’t fill the teacups too much. The tea is usually very hot and it’s easy to get your hands burnt.
- Seniors come first, followed by the youngsters. For the second sip, tea can be served also in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction.
- Always serve the guests first, and then the host/hostess, this is a way to show respect to the guests.
- While or after one’s cup is filled, it’s recommended to tap the index and the middle fingers on the table to express gratitude. The custom originated during the Qing dynasty when the Qianlong emperor (18th century) travelled in disguise throughout the empire. One day, in a restaurant, the emperor poured tea to a servant, who, out of habit, wanted to kneel to express gratitude. However, the servant couldn’t since that would reveal the emperor’s identity, so instead, he tapped on the table with bent fingers.