A Tea Addict's Journal

Tea in a ceremony

November 11, 2007 · 7 Comments

There are tea ceremonies, and there are ceremonies involving tea.  A Chinese wedding is one of them, at least as practiced in Guangdong (I’m not sure about other areas)

What happens in a traditional wedding ceremony goes something like this — the couple walk into the main all where everybody is already there.  The parents of the groom are present in the house, sitting facing out.  The couple walk up to them, and then they bow three times.  Once to the heaven, once to the parents, and then the third to each other.  Then they serve a cup of tea to the parents (kneeling, of course), and in return they get some good luck money in a red bag and some sagely advice, and this is basically what it takes to get a bride to be accepted into the family.  I heard in Korea it’s not tea, but wine, that is served, but the idea is pretty much the same.

I don’t know if there’s a rationale behind the choice of tea other than the fact that it’s the most common drink and that many Chinese just can’t handle wine.  But perhaps there’s a sense of domesticity in drinking tea that wine doesn’t do — you drink wine to celebrate or some such.  Tea, however, is something you drink all the time.  Marrying into a family is going to be a full time affair — you become part of family, and so perhaps in this sense, tea is very appropriate.

These days (such as the wedding I went to today) the bowing no longer takes place, but at least in HK the tea serving gesture is still generally done, however haphazardly.  Except that nowadays, they are often wearing a tux and a qipao, usually (kneeling in a wedding dress can be a difficult move, methinks).  The parent of the bride also get served these days.  Even though circumstances changed though, there’s still some sort of symbolic power that this ceremony holds, so that even this thoroughly westernized society in Hong Kong still performs this.  It’s this kind of thing that makes Hong Kong quite unique — this is probably the only place on Earth where both Christmas and the Buddha’s birthday are both public holidays.  East meets West at its finest.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • lewperin // November 11, 2007 at 7:56 pm | Reply

    I don’t know if there’s a rationale behind the choice of tea other than the fact that it’s the most common drink and that many Chinese just can’t handle wine. But perhaps there’s a sense of domesticity in drinking tea that wine doesn’t do — you drink wine to celebrate or some such. Tea, however, is something you drink all the time.

    I certainly wouldn’t presume to disagree with you, of all people, about Chinese history. But I spent most of my free time this past summer reading (in English) the staggeringly great ancient Chinese novel usually called Outlaws of the Marsh. As a tea fanatic, I always paid close attention to what beverages the characters were putting in their mouths. The winner, in a landslide, was wine. Tea in that book is basically drunk by as a routine by only Buddhist monks. The rest of the characters drink it when the social weather is ceremonial or otherwise unusually serious. One of the most memorable tea sessions is when the guy who might be considered the main character (Song Jiang) drinks with a goddess!

    I’m aware that the book isn’t exactly realistic, much less a sociological slice of life, but still…

    Could it be that Chinese drinking habits changed that radically between the 14th century (that’s when the book was committed to paper; the action takes place two centuries earlier) and now?

  • behhl // November 12, 2007 at 2:57 am | Reply

    Wine is still one of the main things actually in the business circles – many foreign businessman who visit China can tell you their own stories of the chinese banquet dinner that turns into a wine (maotai) drinking marathon. Either that or its brandy etc; they love to be able to drink you into the ground. We joke that you will sacrifice your liver for your fortune. Its the same in Taiwan.

    At Chinese wedding banquets alcohol is a big thing as well, typically brandy and whiskey not so much rice wine nowadays in the overseas chinese communities French Cognac is a favourite! 

    In South East Asia, I observe that the wedding couple do not kneel anymore, they actually stand and the elders sit in chairs before them- and the tea is served to all of the relatives who are elder to the couple. This is done on both sides of the family. So what happens is that you start with the grandparents or great grands if they are lucky enough to be still shaking a leg, then parents etc including all the aunts and uncles until you get to your own elder siblings. But nevermind they all give you hongpaos with lots of cash or gold jewelry so its all worth the trouble! In the old days the elders may choose to have some fun with the couple by ‘disappearing’ to the back of the house etc and the couple would have to go to them and invite them to come drink tea!

    Typically in South East Asia especially in the Nonya community the ‘tea’ served is a actually a sweet soup, those with longan boiled in sweet concoction – the sweet taste is considered auspicios for the wedding – and it is not really a tea like oolong or ceylon.

    I think to serve tea to the elders is understood in the South East Asia Nanyang community as a form of Introduction/Presentation to the elder relatives – kind of like being presented at the court in the debutante season in olden europe. Old Chinese would not considered you married unti they were served tea. Once they drank your tea you were ‘in.’ 

  • wisdom_sun // November 12, 2007 at 4:02 am | Reply

    Without a doubt, alcohol was as much a part of Chinese life as tea. A very famous painting of the imperial capital of Song Dyanasty, at a time a little earlier and more fabulous than the Water Marshes’, shows more than a few “watering holes”. However…

    I have not re-read the Water Marshes for many years, but I distinctly remember reading about tea-drinking a few times, along with the rather intriguing phrase “dian cha ÂI¯ù”. At first, I thought it meant “ordering tea”; only later did I realize that “dian cha” is a way of tea-preparation, as opposed to that of “jian cha ·Î¯ù” which preceded it and that of “pao cha ªw¯ù” which followed.

    During the Song Dynasty, which is the setting for the Water Marshes, tea was drunk quite differently than today. There were plain teas of course, but the tea-drinking vogue was flavoured teas. Dry fruits, nuts, spices and various other addictives were added to tea. That is what dian cha was all about.

    Which brings me to MarshalN’s happy occasion: whereas nowadays most Hong Kong weddings use plain tea for their tea ceremony out of ease and convenience, traditionally, the “tea” used ought to be sweetened and flavoured with red dates, dried longan, lotus roots and lotus seeds, among other things. Whether it was a leftover from Song Dynasty vogue or not, who knows; but these addictives are certainly featured for their auspicious homynymn:

    Red date — Glory to the forefathers

    Dried longan — Success in the official exams

    Lotus roots — Complete harmony between the newlyweds

    Lotus seeds — Many sons

    (An aside: A recently-published English book on Puerh explains the number 7 in “Seven-Son Cake” as signifying good fortune when nothing could be farther from the truth — the number 7 is usually associated with bad luck, quarrels, strives and even death in Chinese numerology.)

    Tea, flavoured or not, is very important in Chinese weddings. Aside from the tea ceremony’s show of filial respect, the act of bethrotment is literally “accepting the gift of tea (from the future groom’s family)”. The custom of ceremoniously serving tea to the bride’s parents, however, is a recent one — the older generation would be appalled by it, for, in China’s patriachical society, one could hardly imagine the groom serving tea to the bride’s parents. Besides, in the olden days, whereas the wedding affair was considered a happy one for the groom’s clan (“gaining a new bride”), it was sad for the bride’s (“losing a daughter”). So, it was not considered appropriate for the bridal parents to sit there and be served in joy.

    On the other hand, it was customary for all the senior members, not just the direct parents, in the groom’s family to be served tea one after another. It could take over an hour and be physically demanding, but the newlyweds were happy to do it — with every bow and service they got piled on with more jewelry and money!

    I don’t need the excuse of wedding to drink the sweetened red date tea — it’s tasty and supposedly good for health.

  • MarshalN // November 12, 2007 at 8:04 am | Reply

    Remember who you’re talking about though, Lew…. the people you are reading about are, for better or worse, bandits.  Bandits don’t drink tea.  They are boisterous people who drink wine, and lots and lots of it.

  • lewperin // November 12, 2007 at 1:57 pm | Reply

    Bandits don’t drink tea. They are boisterous people who drink wine, and lots and lots of it.

    Boisterous? Song Jiang? Sure there are boisterous, amoral characters in the book (Li Kui above all.) But most of the important bandits never chose to go outside the law; lots of them are quite sober … except when they get loaded!

  • wyardley // November 12, 2007 at 8:14 pm | Reply

    I think (and like Lew, I don’t presume to lecture you about this stuff) that the alcohol thing tends to be a respect thing (as well as a frathouse kind of torture thing) beteween men, whereas serving tea in Chinese culture is a more general (and inclusive) gesture of respect to one’s elder.

    At my gf’s cousin’s wedding (in Shanghai), the traditional part of the ceremony mostly seemed to be for the benefit of the camera and video camera. But they did serve tea to both sets of parents, bride’s parents first when we came to get the bride at her parents’ house. I’m not sure if it was actually tea, or just broth from the date thing that the egg is served in.

  • behhl // November 12, 2007 at 9:58 pm | Reply

    Something I read on a Hong Kong blogger’s blog ust today – talk of synchronicity – thought Lew might enjoy the connotations and the implied window into the intricate workings of the Chinese wine mind! 

    Its a Chinese saying that goes like:-

    ¡°½ñ³¯ÓоƩo½ñ³¯×í” (gam jiu yau jau, gam jiu jui)

    literal translation Â¡Â°At dawn have wine, at dawn get drunk¡±

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