A Cultural Ritual: Drinking Tea in China

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By Justine Gustafson, Center for Public and Global Affairs Intern
July 22, 2015

I am a coffee person. So when I moved to China’s number one tea consuming province, Fujian, I definitely struggled. In Fujian, especially in and around my city Xiamen, tea is a way of life. At any time of the day, in any location of the city people are drinking tea. Often it is the local favorite, Oolong tea (乌龙) grown on Fujian’s very own Wuyi mountains. However, tea from more exotic locations such as Pu erh tea (普洱茶) from the distant Yunnan Province are also enjoyed regularly.

Drinking tea can be done anywhere, I discovered. You see it living rooms, schools, real estate agencies, offices, and parks. You will even see older men casually set up a couple of chairs and a table on the sidewalk with a friend and spend the entire day talking, smoking cigarettes, watching the comings and goings around them and of course drinking tea!

It is not only a social activity but a cultural ritual really, one about being welcoming, and building relationships with others. As a ritual, it comes with its own practices and traditions that underlie its importance. For example, even the most basic Chinese furniture is designed around this activity. Typically, a living room furniture set will include four identically designed wooden pieces. One large sofa and two chairs will surround a medium size coffee (tea) table, creating a three-sided square. On the table, there is always, without fail, a tea platter, tea set and related paraphernalia.

We can all imagine what a basic tea set looks like, cups, a strainer, a teapot, the basics. Yet in Fujian there is so much more to it. The cups are small, roughly the size of a shot glasses, so they are in constant need of refilling. This requires the pourer of the tea to be very attentive to his guests, always topping off the cup until the guest taps two fingers on the edge of the table, a non-verbal signal that he has finished drinking tea.

Usually, the platter the tea set sits on, a large, multilayered, square platform, is in itself, a work of craftsmanship. The cleaning of the cups is done between every newly poured pot of tea and the cleaning is done right there in front of you on this platter. The cups are rinsed with boiling hot water from an electric teapot sitting nearby. The water then is poured onto the platter and leaks through the holes on the surface layer into an unseen lower layer. I remember previously asking a friend of mine who customarily poured me tea when I came to visit him in his home, “Doesn’t the lower level of the platter fill up fast since you pour and rinse the cups so often?” He told me to look under the table and there I saw a large red plastic bucket with a rubber tube going to it from the lower level of the platter. It was a tea drainage system! There is his living room! At the time I thought it was a stroke of genius from my friend, now I realize it’s common practice.

As for the taste of Chinese tea, it is much stronger than what I would say we are used to in the States. Like coffee, you could say it’s an acquired taste. I’ve seen parents give their children a taste of Chinese green tea and recognized the look of disgust from their pinched up faces, such a similar reaction to my own first taste of coffee as a kid. Yet, as adults we get used to it, even crave that taste we first rejected.

The part I love most about the tea culture in Fujian is the process, the ritual. I enjoy watching them carefully, though mindlessly go through the routine previously so foreign to me, now so familiar. Never touching anything with  their hands, they use a pair of wooden tweezers to do the work. First you must rinse the cups with boiling water, then add some to the strainer full of tea nuggets into the teapot.

Always use the first batch of tea to rinse the cups, again (Why? Because the first batch is always too strong!) Drain. Refill the pot with boiled water, (the initial bite of the tea is milder now…ah, much better!). Next check the temperature by pouring a few drops on the 2-inch tall stone gargoyle ornament that comes along with every tea set. Did he turn from gray to green from the hot water? Yes? The tea is ready to serve!

After three years in Fujian, I am still a coffee person. I have gotten used to Chinese tea, but I’m still not a fan. But when my friends, neighbors, or professors invite me to join them in a round or two of tea, I never decline. I love the tradition of it, the ritual, and the building of friendships it represents.

The views and opinions expressed on The Falls are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.