Interesting Chinese Ancient Tea Traditions That You May Want to Know

Experience the ancient world of tea.

Where do we start with Chinese tea traditions? Since China is where tea got its big break, the reverence for tea and its incorporation into daily life are ubiquitous among the Chinese. If every one of their fortune cookies said, “Tomorrow you will have tea” they would almost certainly be right 100% of the time.

Totally woven into the fabric of life, tea was regarded in ancient China as one of the seven most important elements in Chinese life (the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar, which is like modern Americans saying tea is like gas, electricity, internet, cell service, pizza, Netflix, and Amazon).

1. You Can Show Respect

Chinese heritage and tradition are steeped in respect. From the household to the board room, even today there are protocols that are not to be broken, and one of those is offering tea to your elders or superiors.

Traditionally, younger generations of Chinese show respect to an older generation by offering or taking them out for tea. The same is true in the workplace, where again traditionally employees would offer tea to their superiors, not vice versa. In today’s more liberal Chinese society, these long-held practices are not as strictly observed, except in formal occasions where they are scrupulously adhered to.

2. You Can Do the Secret Tea Handshake

Well, it’s not really a handshake, but it’s pretty cool. Here’s the story.

Back in the mid-1700s, the Qianlong Emperor, in a beta version of “Undercover Boss,” wanted to know how things were in his kingdom. So he dressed as a regular guy, took a servant and went out to see what was what. 

While they were checking out his peeps, the Emperor and his servant stopped for tea… and the Emperor poured tea for his servant, breaking all kinds of tea protocol. The servant, understandably touched and probably somewhat confused, wanted to show his gratitude in the traditional way by kneeling before the Emperor. But wait! By doing so, the servant would reveal all and the Emperor would immediately be recognized as Qianlong!

Instead of blowing the Emperor’s cover, the servant quickly came up with an alternative: he bent two fingers and tapped them against the table, subtly conveying his thanks and respect. It worked great until Qianlong whipped out his Chinese Express card to pay and the gig was up.

To this day, tapping two fingers on the table when someone pours you a cup of tea in China is recognized as “thank you.”

3. Tea Pet

Tea pets are small clay figures that many tea drinkers have for good luck. They are usually made of Yixing clay and, like the Yixing teapots, they are unglazed. Chinese tea lovers “raise” their tea pet by placing it on the tray during the ceremony and pouring tea over it. Over time, this will change the color of the tea pet, which means it is well loved!

While tea pets can come in the form of zodiac animals or Chinese mythical creatures, the most popular is the “pee-pee boy” whose job it is to indicate if the water is hot enough to make tea. (We are not making this up.) After soaking the pee-pee boy in cold water, hot water is poured over him. If it is the proper temperature (science is involved), the pee-pee boy will do as his name indicates—entertainment and proper water temperature all rolled into one!

4. Chinese Tea Ceremonies

Wedding Tea Ceremony. During this important traditional ritual, both the bride and groom serve tea in a  gaiwan to both sides of the parents, recognizing the moment where members of each family become relatives. It is an important show of respect and honor.

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