Chinese Tea Culture

Although Chinese tea culture today seems to be centered largely on Yixing teapots, antique teapots prove that porcelain also had and has a role in China's tea culture. 

Serving as places for social gatherings, tea houses have been an integral part of China's tea culture and social life for centuries.

First I wish to clarify one thing - after having lived in both, Japanese and Chinese societies for a long time, I dare to differ with the view of some tea culture "experts" who try to establish a link between Chinese tea drinking and Japanese Cha-no-Yu, or any tea ceremony. This is just a try at a commercial exploitation of the western interest in green tea.

tea house

Chinese Tea House
with classical
decoration

Chinese tea culture is fundamentally different from tea ceremony. Although the custom of tea drinking was brought back to Japan by Buddhist monks, its later development happened separately and was initially catering mainly to the warrior class. There is no way to draw parallels between the two.

Pewter tea caddy (vintage)

In Japan's Cha-no-Yu (or Cha-Do) the ceremony itself is central, largely influenced by Zen. The actual drinking or tasting of the tea is just a part of the whole ceremony. The ceremonial preparation, viewing and handling of the tea bowl, wiping it after drinking, etc. are all an essential part of Japan's tea ceremony. However, this way of tea drinking is fairly limited to those belonging to one of the tea ceremony schools.

In my experience any talk about a 'Chinese Tea Ceremony' is just exploiting a modern fad in the west for commercial purposes - selling tea and utensils. The tea ceremony is something utterly Japanese. There is NO Chinese tea ceremony proper in existence.

Chinese tea is not involved in anything like this in real life. Traditionally, tea drinking is wide-spread among the general population and it happens without any ceremonial behavior and rituals.

The only exception of this is perhaps the custom of a ceremonial tea presentation at weddings.
During the wedding reception or dinner the bride and bridegroom must present their parents with cups of tea. Sometimes they must even do this kneeling down before the seated parents. That is all.

In general, Chinese tea drinking is more casual, utilitarian, with the actual drinking or tasting of tea as central point. There is no ritualistic or ceremonial drinking. Any gathering may be accompanied by tea drinking. For many Chinese it is the most natural thing, and they start brewing tea whenever visitors or friends arrive.
Actually, tea drinking is often just a pretense for a social gathering.
Ceremonial 'tea preparation shows' that some may have observed online or elsewhere are just that: shows.

Although current Chinese tea culture seems to be centered largely on Yixing teapots, a type of earthenware, antique teapots made of porcelain prove that porcelain also had an important role in China's tea culture for many centuries.

Chinese traditional tea drinking is wide-spread among the general population and comes without any ceremonial behavior and rituals.

Tea caddy, Qing dynasty

Tea caddy- Qing dynasty

Tea caddy,
Qianlong reign

Qianlong era tea caddy

In Chinese tea culture the preparation and serving, on the other hand, is more functional, unceremonious, and widely spread in everyday life and the general population. It speedily leads to the actual tea drinking.

The emphasis is more on the taste or quality of the tea itself. Apart from enjoying the tea, tea drinking also serves as a social function - for sitting together and talking about just anything.

Mostly the tea is poured into the cups without much ado, but sometimes the host will give the guest(s) a tea sniffing cup before pouring the tea. See below.

Tea sniffing cup,
Qing dynasty

Tea sniffing cup

Tea sniffing has a similar purpose as wine sniffing prior to serving wine in western culture. When opening a new bottle, the host (or waiter) first pours a small quantity of wine into a glass and lets the guest sniff the "bouquet" before actually pouring the wine.

With tea the host will first pour some tea into the sniffing cup and then empty it immediately.
The empty cup is then handed to the guest who holds the cup in the hand enclosing it with all fingers to keep it warm, allowing him/her to sniff the fragrance remaining in the cup.
After that the tea is poured. The tea sniffing is often omitted.




The Origins of Tea

It is not well known when tea started to be used as a beverage, nor when cultivation of tea began. What is known is that tea was known in China for more than two thousand years. 
Initially it was used for medicinal purposes.

Chinese folklore has it that emperor Shennong (神農) was the person who discovered tea, accidentally, but information about the actual origin of tea, the beginnings of its cultivation and drinking are lost in the mist of time.
Cha-Jing, the Script of Tea written by Lu Yu (陸羽) in the Tang dynasty (between 760 and 780), mentions that Chinese tea culture and tea drinking was well established at the time. Tea as a beverage had already is firm place in Chinese society.

During the Tang dynasty the method of tea drinking was developed to its fullest.  However, the tea itself that was used was coarse and tea preparation required grinding it with a pestle against the inner wall of a grinding bowl, before it was ready for infusing.


Yixing Pottery

Tea Drinking in China



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