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Chinese Tea Ceremony

The Chinese Tea ceremony is what first comes to mind when a Westerner thinks of Chinese tea: an elegant and minimalist setting, a meditative figure pouring tea to the sound of some beautiful Asian stringed instrument, and on the table, many utensils whose functions are as mysterious as their appearance is delicate.


Many Western academics or researchers have tried to bring to light the deep meaning of the Chinese tea ceremony – which, by the way is different from the Japanese tea ceremony – without always taking into account the way it is actually practiced nowadays, in various parts of China. This is the angle we will try to take to introduce it in today’s post.


First of all, it is important to understand the origin of the Chinese ceremony also called in Chinese the Way of Tea (or ChaDao茶道). The word Chadao first appeared during the Tang Dynasty, in a poem written by a monk called Jian Ran, where it referred to tea drinking as a way to cultivate one’s mind and to improve one’s character.


Chadao has to be distinguished from Chayi (茶艺) or Tea Art. This expression was first used by Taiwan tea lovers in the 1980’s and can encompass selecting good tea, choosing suitable water as well as using elegant utensils, brewing and tasting the tea. On the contrary, Chadao focuses solely on tea drinking but instills it with layer upon layer of deep meanings, leading some to consider it as a real lifestyle or philosophy of life.



Lu Yu’s definition in the Classic of Tea

 LuYu, the Tea Sage, author of the first treatise on tea during the Tang Dynasty, the Classic of Tea (link to our article on history of tea) defined tea ceremony throughout his work as an occasion to ‘polish one’s behaviour and to cultivate frugality’ while drinking tea. Therefore, drinking tea has had from early on in history a deeply moral underlying meaning and has reflected an ideal version of society’s moral norms.



A connection to Nature according to Chinese Taoism

Chinese Taoism also influenced deeply the thoughts surrounding tea and the tea ceremony. The core idea that Taoism instilled in the Chinese tea ceremony was that tea drinking should find its beauty in simplicity, that every action should arise naturally, without affectation. Tea drinkers should see their minds free and reach a sense of tranquility and contentment. The ultimate purpose was the ‘combination of Heaven and man’, a philosophy advocated by Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism.



Chadao spreads to the palace and the temples

 Once tea became popular among scholars and officials, and started using tea as a means of leisure and competition, it became necessary to set some basic rules for tea ceremony. ‘Drinking tea to refine one’s will’ was the moral core pursued by scholars.

Similarly, Buddhism took to tea and made it a central element of its ceremonies and daily lives of the monks. Monks believed tea drinking and Buddhist meditation were alike in getting people to behave properly and to cultivate themselves.



The tradition of serving three Infusions of Tea to guests

 The custom of the three infusions of tea is said to have originated from the State of Dali, currently in the Yunnan Province where it was practised by the Bai minority when entertaining their guests.

Usually when the guests arrived, the host would put a stoneware pot on a charcoal fire and

add a suitable amount of green tea into it. Then he would shake it continuously. When the tea leaves turned a yellowish colour and a certain fragrance emanated from the pot, the host would pour a small amount of boiling water into it and as soon as a sizzling sound could be heard, the tea would be poured.

Each infusion would symbolize a period in man’s life, thus allowing for strong philosophical connotations:

  • The first infusion would be bitter, indicating that someone in his youth must be able to live a rough life, and the courage to build his own career.
  • The host would then fill the pot with boiling water, along with sugar and walnuts and reboil the tea. This second infusion was sweet with a nutty flavour, which signified entering the middle age meant beginning to taste the fruit of life after a lot of efforts.
  • The third infusion was called ‘fragrant tea’ and contained, added to the tea, some milk and sugar. The third infusion was often more watery and insipid, which meant that at an old age, people should be indifferent to the chaos of life.



Tea as a betrothal gift

Tea has always considered as a plant conferring vitality and longevity, with connotations of ‘faithfulness’ and ‘ bearing more sons’ so it naturally became an essential part of wedding ceremonies as early as the Tang dynasty. The custom of implicitly referring to marriage proposal meeting between two families as ‘having tea’ and to call the wedding ceremony ‘tea engagement’ (dingcha) or ‘tea giving’ (xiacha) was practiced in many areas. The dowry given to the future bride’s family was called ‘tea gift’ or ‘tea money’ and if the family received it, it was called ‘tea acceptance’. On the wedding day and even in the three days following the wedding, the bride and groom should serve tea to their guests to show their respect.



Tea as a symbol of longevity

 In Chinese, the character Cha 茶 can be decomposed into several key characters from top to bottom:

  • Gong 廾 which was also similar in appearance to the traditonal character nian 廿 meaning 20
  • Ba 八which means 8
  • Shi十 which means 10
  • Ba 八again
  • Adding 20 + 80 + 8, one ends up with the auspicious number 108 which stands for a life lasting 108 years long. Thus, when hosts served tea to guests, they were serving ‘tea life’ and wishing their guests a long and healthy life.



The Four True meanings of Chinese tea ceremony

In the 1980’S, tea and Chinese culture specialists from Taiwan tried to define the true meaning of the Chinese tea ceremony and came up with the four following words:

‘Harmony, quietness, pleasure and nature.’

  • Harmony, the philosophical core: it is a philosophical concept that is common to all three main religions in China, namely Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. However all three schools have different understandings of harmony in Chinese tea ceremony. On the basis of the philosophical theory of Supreme Harmony, Confucianism derives that tea brewing embodies the beauty of ‘the golden mean’ (cf Doctrine of the Mean 中庸之道for more explanations), and tea drinking referred to the moral principles of modesty and gentleness. For Daoism, tea ceremony represents the harmony between Heaven and Man beyond wordly affairs’, and puts the accent upon being on intimate terms with nature. Finally, Buddhism equated drinking tea to some form of meditation, which allowed monks to include tea as an important beverage in their daily life.
  • Quietness, the necessary requirement: the idea that ‘tea should be tasted quietly’ was derived from the Daoist theory that it is better to keep away from the evils and worries of the world. When drinking tea in a peaceful environment, one would reach the realm that lays ‘beyond worldly desires and pursuits’. When you drink tea, your spirit is instilled with the beverage and cleansed by it, allowing you to commune with nature as happens during a meditation sitting.
  • Pleasure, the ability to feel: contrary to our current perception, Chinese tea ceremony was an form of entertainment practiced both by the highest classes and the lowest. In its more mundane form, tea ceremony became an opportunity to enjoy the freedom and pleasure that Daoism also advocates, in the physical pleasure derived from drinking tea as well as in the spiritual comfort that it provides. Tea drinkers should put their mind in a state of relaxation and release that allowed them to merge with nature.
  • Genuineness, the ultimate pursuit: linked to that concept was the Daoist principle of the ‘return to nature’ and implied not only that the main ingredient, the tea, be genuine and of high quality, but that the whole environment surrounding it be genuine too: landscapes and water, calligraphies and paintings, utensils all had to be chosen with care to reflect the fundamental notion of authenticity. This also included treating guests whole-heartedly, speaking with true feelings and being in a really relaxed state of mind, with no anxiety or pressure.



A tea ceremony for each country and province

 Tea ceremony spread to Japan during the Tang dynasty (it was supposedly introduced in 805 by a monk), but developed different cultural connotations, such as etiquette and very strict procedures, and the reference to the family clan and hierarchy, which are not present in Chinese Tea Ceremony, whereas the Korean tea ceremony, in its research of quiet and harmony, is more closely related to Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea definition. In Japanese tea ceremony also, since tea is consumed using the diancha method or steamed, the aspect and beauty of the tea leaves is not considered so important. What is essential in the Japanese version of the ceremony is to be mindful of the present moment and grateful to the craftsman who crafted each of the utensils and the teamaker who produced the tea, as well as to the person serving the tea.

Finally, nowadays, the variety of Chinese tea culture can be understood when one considers the differences in tea ceremonies across China: the Chaozhou Gongfucha, born in the Ming Dynasty and popularized during the Qing Dynasty, especially for the drinking of Dancong Oolong; or the art of the Sichuan long-spout teapot which through time became a very sought after performance, with teapot spouts up to 1.2 metres long !

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