Tea in China

Explaining the Traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony

Traditionally, the Chinese people have revered tea for its life-enhancing qualities. It’s believed to help heal illness and promote Qi (life force/energy) and longevity. Chinese tea has always been so much more than a mere beverage, and it even evolved to become more than just medicine too.

Teapots

Thousands of years ago, it became one of the key components of a spiritual life. These ceremonies stemmed from the practice of monks who would use oolong tea to show humility, communicate respect for nature, and promote a sense of calm and serenity in their lives. They eventually combined their consumption of tea with the religious ceremonies they practiced, and thus was born the tea ceremony: a three-part blend of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

Benefits

Since its genesis, the tea ceremony has been attributed with the power of being able to bring forth peace, quiet, truth, and enjoyment. This last one is crucial, as tea came to possess great social value. It’s now a large part of the Chinese culture and credited with bringing people together (more on this below).

Tea in China

Occasion of use

Tea ceremonies are most often performed during formal events. At weddings, for instance, the bride’s family will typically serve the groom’s family tea as a means of expressing gratitude and celebration. Other occasions where you would encounter a tea ceremony? When welcomed into a Chinese home, at family gatherings, in scenarios when apologies are being made, and when youth want to show respect to their elders.

DIY: Tea Ceremony at home

Tea ceremonies are a beautiful practice that anyone can appreciate and benefit from. They’re extremely meditative and, as a communal activity, they help cultivate a sense of belonging, something that is so dire in our hyper-connected, yet the isolated world. So, want to try to re-create a ceremony at home? Here are the key ingredients for a successful tea ceremony:

  • teapot
  • strainer
  • pitcher
  • brewing tray
  • kettle
  • plate/bowl with a depth
  • tea towel
  • tea pick
  • tea leaf holder
  • narrow snifter cups
  • tea cups
  • tongs
  • loose-leaf tea
  • snacks (plums, pistachios)

Step 1: Heat the tea set

Before you even take a sip, you have to pick up the cup. So, drinking tea begins with the sensation of holding this vessel in your hands. To maximize the experience, use a teacup that’s been pre-heated, which will envelop your hands in a warm hug. To do this, heat your water in a kettle and place the teapot and cups in your bowl. Then, fill the bowl with the heated water.

Traditional Chinese tea

Following the submersion remove pot and cups with tongs and voila, perfectly heated dishes. This comforting feeling of having a warm teacup in your hands is heightened, by the way, when your cup is one that can be enjoyed by your other senses—notably sight and touch. So, find a tea set that you are visually attracted to, and that has that pleasurable weightiness that gives it a sense of true value.

Step 2: Meditate on the tea leaves

As mentioned, part of the beauty of this ceremony is engaging all your senses. So, it is customary to pass around the tea leaves from person to person, which allows each person partaking in the ceremony to takes a quiet moment to delight in the aroma, color, shape, texture, and quality of the tea leaves in their hands.

Step 3: The Black Dragon Enters the Palace

This is the uniquely named part of the ceremony wherein the tea leaves are poured out of the canister that holds them and into the teapot.

Step 4: Heat the water

The temperature you want your water at is going to depend on the type of tea you’re brewing. A good guideline is the following:

  • White/green: 172 – 185 °F
  • Black: 210 °F
  • Oolong: 185 – 212 °F
  • Pu’erh: 212 °F

There is no set tea to water ratio—it varies based on a type of Chinese tea, and its age—but a very general, broad-based recommendation is one teaspoon of tea leaves for every 6 ounces of water. You’ll know you’ve struck the right balance when you the tea is not so strong that it’s bitter, but not so weak that it’s void of flavor.

One thing to know – water that is either distilled, soft, or hard should be avoided.

Step 5: Pour the water

Before anything else – put the teapot into the bowl. Once that’s done, raise the kettle up to shoulder height, then begin to pour the steaming water into the pot until it overflows. If bubbles have formed, or if tea leaves have risen to the surface, they should be scooped away before you place the lid on. After this, you’ll want to pour more hot water into the pot, in order to match the teapot’s outer temperature to its inner one.

A cup of Chinese tea

Step 6: Breathe in the aroma

Next, grab hold of your snifter cups and your pitcher. Fill the pitcher first, with the contents of the pot, and then with the pitcher, proceed to fill your snifters. Your teacups should be now placed on top of your snifter cups. The teacups will be upside down, so the inside is touching the rim of the snifter. This positioning is meant to symbolic of happiness and prosperity. You then proceed to flip the cups quickly. Now breathe in the smell of the tea in your teacups. Delight in it. Then, discard it.

Step 7: Steep the tea

Using the same tea leaves, use the kettle again to refill your teapot (again, from shoulder-height). Place the lid back on and allow the leaves to steep. The length each tea will need to brew varies upon freshness, quality, size of leaves, but a general outline is…

  • Green: 30 sec. – 3 min.
  • White: 2 – 3 min.
  • Black: 3 – 5 min.
  • Oolong: 30 sec. – 10 min.
  • Pu’erh: 10 – 20 sec.

Step 8: Pour the tea and drink

Pour the tea from pot to pitcher to snifter and then finally to teacups. To ensure each cup has a similar taste (strength), pouring quickly, smoothly and elegantly. Before that first sip, hold the cup in your two hands. Embrace a meditative state. Inhale deeply, basking in the fragrance. Take one small sip; think about the different notes you taste.

Woman drinking a tea

The cup is consumed in three, slow, peaceful mouthfuls. So, the second is the largest, the “main course,” so to speak. Finally, the last sip is taken with gratitude; the drinker drains the cup, enjoying every last drop. The tea ceremony is complete when the used leaves are extracted and placed in a bowl—use the tongs for this. Guests are meant to express their thanks and compliment the host’s high-quality tea at this point in time.

I find this one of the best strategies for really slowing down and grounding ourselves. It helps us appreciate the utterly simple things in life, like the beauty of a tea leaf. And—not to go unmentioned, this practice really helps us connect with the culture we’re currently immersed in, and can help you get a better grasp on ancient Chinese traditions too!

So, what’s your take on tea ceremonies? Do you see yourself incorporating them in your bag of tricks for unwinding/self-educating/bringing the family together?

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Cez Krol

Travel blogger at eTramping
Cez lives in China like a local for the past 4 years. Apart from speaking the language, he loves to discover more about this unique country of extreme contrasts. He shares his China experiences here at Sublime China and on his blog eTramping, so go and check out what's out there for you in China.
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