The History of the Chinese Tea Ceremony

Want to learn how to incorporate one into your celebrations? Find out here

The Chinese New Year is almost upon us, as well as one of the oldest rituals that comes with it: the Chinese tea ceremony. When tea was first used centuries ago for medicinal purposes, monks began to drink tea and to use it to teach the principles of calmness, nature, and humility. In fact, the Chinese words "he," "jing," "yi," and  "zhen" — the same words for peace, quiet, enjoyment and truth — are often used to describe the ritual of the Chinese tea ceremony. 

We asked Farina Kingsley, the author behind the blog Farina's Asian Pantry, to learn more about the traditions behind the tea ceremony and how to make one at home. 

The Daily Meal: What kinds of teas are served during the tea ceremony? What’s the reasoning behind each one?

Farina Kingsley: There are endless choices of teas, but usually a high-quality, loose-leaf tea such as oolong, jasmine, or a white tea.

TDM: What kind of teapots and teacups are used for the ceremony?

FK: There are tea ceremonies performed at home or in more casual settings and formal tea ceremonies performed at proper tea houses called "gongfu cha." A "gaiwan" is a porcelain teacup that sits on a saucer with a lid. The tea leaves are allowed to brew in the cup itself and then using the lid to deftly brush away the tea leaves before drinking.

TDM: What’s the process of a traditional tea ceremony from start to finish?

FK: In a familial setting, depending on the household, the ceremony is a gesture of paying respect and expressing gratitude. The ceremony typically calls for the server to kow tow (to kneel) in front of the one being honored and then both hands are used to pass the "gaiwan" of tea. Typically, auspicious phrases are expressed by the "server", a sip of tea is taken by the senior, and then a bit more tea is added to the gaiwan. A Hong Bao (red envelope with money) is then gifted by the senior to the server of an expression of thanks.

TDM: What’s the historical background of the tea ceremony, and how has it evolved?

FK: Tea ceremonies have been performed for centuries in China. Tea was not only a soothing beverage, but used for medicinal purposes. Customs associated with drinking tea were established through Chinese history to honor a particular person or event. Today, tea ceremonies  are usually performed before a Chinese wedding, an elder's birthday, and during the first day of Chinese New Year.

TDM: Do you have any tips for readers who want to do a tea ceremony at home?

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FK: Find a local Chinese tea house and learn about the art of serving Chinese tea. I would recommend learning through tasting and to invest in a delicate "gaiwan" and several types of teas (black, white, and green). Every family has their own tea pouring customs. I encourage everyone to share in the experience and to try incorporating the calming and respectful art of serving tea with family and friends.