Tea drinking in Chinese culture is synonymous to purity. It is much more than a mere quenching of thirst or a simple habit. It is the way of life for a Chinese. From wedding and ceremonial rituals to its place in everyday life, tea drinking is an important custom that is taken seriously in Chinese tradition.
The Chinese tea drinking culture symbolizes the purity of thought and deed. So the entire process of tea drinking, from preparation to the actual drinking involves a great deal of meticulous planning and utmost cleanliness. It calls for refinement, graciousness and quite contemplation, unmarred by poor quality in tea, tea-ware or atmosphere. It does not allow for any compromise in the process of infusion or ambience. For tea drinking is a spiritual encounter of sorts.
The Chinese believe that tea replenishes the soul. Whereas tea drinking in the West is more of an earthly enjoyment, it transcends beyond the mortal realms to a heavenly pleasure in Chinese tradition. So it is not to be taken lightly or compromised with.
The quality of tea is compared to the ideal personal traits of an individual. For it is believed that the quality of tea a person drinks imbibes those very virtues in the person. Thus the ideal tea is pleasant, refined and of lasting flavour, low-keyed and non-aggressive or strong.
The actual process of preparing tea involves precision, utmost hygiene and care against contagion from other materials or perfumes. This need for perfect blend and cleanliness speaks of the impact of tea on a man’s spirituality. Tea prepared with such care renders purity of thought and action in the person’s life. The perfection in blend symbolizes harmony.
Tea Drinking Ceremony
The very word ‘ceremony’ connotes the importance accorded to the simple act of drinking tea in Chinese culture. Historically it is an art form called ‘chao dao’ that was laid down in the ancient scriptures. It lays down the guiding principles of the tea ceremony. Strict adherence to the norms is believed to guarantee spiritual refreshment. From this arises integrity and refinement.
Drinking tea is symbolic of dignity and finesse in one’s life. This is why the ceremony is performed in elegance, using the correct tea-ware and in a graceful setting.
The soul of tea drinking ceremony is considered to be ‘melody’. A tea ceremony without rhythm is considered life without colour. Drinking tea while listening to Chinese melodies is said to relax the body and refresh the soul. Ancient Chinese melodies contain within the tenor, an elegance and rustic simplicity that render aesthetic and mystical pleasure to the listener drinking tea. The tradition of listening to melodies while drinking tea is believed to enhance the whole tea drinking process with its spiritual ethos.
Use of the four flowers, plum, chrysanthemum, bamboo and orchid, as decoration during Chinese tea ceremony hours, further enhances the mysticim of the ceremony with their individual symbolic virtues.
Contained within the Chinese tea ceremony are the principles of ‘ying’ and ‘yang’, that take into account the elements surrounding a person drinking tea. Thus the choice of tea and the tea-ware when matched with the surrounding elements of breeze, moon, pines, plums and snow, symbolic of Chinese culture, renders harmony in the tea drinker’s life.
It is no wonder that tea is also considered a Zen like drink that levels all inequalities, whether intrinsic or external manifestations.. The philosophy embedded within an early Zen master’s counsel to three monks “Go and have your cup of tea,” reflects the role of tea in Chinese culture, that perceives men as equals.
The importance of Chinese tea drinking culture manifests in Chinese literature and works of art. Whether it is poetry, music, paintings or creative works, tea drinking and its significance in Chinese life and culture is well depicted.
Tea drinking in Chinese medicine
Drinking of tea in Chinese culture is associated with its various health and medicinal properties. Tea is considered beneficial for the digestive system and the brain. Its refreshing and relaxing properties also contribute towards a person’s mental health and overall well-being. Thus tea drinking features prominently in the ancient science of Chinese medicine for its multi-level healing values.
The use of specific coloured tea-ware like teapots of Yixing purple clay, enhances the tea. The tea ceremony dress also heightens the general feeling of peace and contentment. The infusion of tea is thus a mysterious and harmonious blend of qualities, both spiritual and material, that invigorates and pacifies the tea drinker. Drinking of tea thus improves the quality of life.
Significance of the tea drinking ceremony in weddings
Tea drinking also forms an important part of Chinese weddings. Tea is drunk twice. The first time is on the morning before the wedding, when the bride serves tea to her parents to express her gratitude for the nurturing received in her parent’s house. The wedding tea ceremony involves a joint preparation of tea by the bride and groom. This includes red dates and lotus seeds that symbolize fertility. They serve this tea to their parents and elders as a mark of respect. This also introduces the two families to each other.
Tea drinking in Chinese weddings, is thus redolent with divine messages; that of togetherness, harmony, respect for elders and fertility.
These words of a seventh century Chinese scholar perfectly epitomise the essence of the Chinese tea drinking culture:
The first cup moistens my lips and throat
The second cup breaks my loneliness,
The third cup searches my barren entrails,
The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,
The fifth cup purifies me,
The sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals,
The seventh cup – Ah, but I can take no more!