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Tea Culture in China





The art of serving tea and its consumption have been enjoyed in China for about 4000 years. Many claim that indeed it was initially discovered in this mysterious land and that the idea was later spread to India by the British, who tried to compete with the Chinese tea production.


Legend has it that tea was first used for medical purposes in China, when it saved the life of an ancient ruler called Yan Di. He was said to have been suffering from food poisoning when a drop of tea from a tea tree fell into his mouth and he was saved. Records indicate that in its early days tea in China was very much used for medical purposes. This can be seen by the on-going culture of herbal medicine in the country.


Tea is a beverage that in many countries is associated with basic hospitality requirements and a way of demonstrating proper etiquettes. In Pakistan and India, where the beverage is called Chai, the drink is enjoyed by every man, regardless of social standing or profession. A cup of chai accompanied with biscuits in the morning is how the day is traditionally begun.

In the Middle East, the rituals of sharing a cup of mint tea, shai labanon, is common practice when closing an important negotiation or deal. In the UK, having tea is a timeless tradition accompanied by cream and scones and enjoyed in almost every household.


Despite being consumed as the prominent drink in these three regions of the world, the association of tea culture with China can be seen as more complex as it reflects a greater understanding of the culture that it has been part of. Some would say it has become increasingly significant as a social symbol. For instance, important Chinese concepts such as respect for elders and a way of conveying gratitude can be portrayed through tea serving. Serving tea as an act of gratitude is demonstrated well in Chinese weddings, as the bride and groom kneel before their parents and serve them tea to symbolize appreciation for raising them. Similarly, young people often pour tea for the elderly to show them respect.


Pouring tea for someone can also been seen as an act of regret and submission, a way to carry out a serious apology. In the past it has helped highlight social hierachy as someone on a more elevated status to you would never pour you tea. This idea can be played around with in the sense that when someone more important then you wants to show an appreciation for you, they could pour you tea, which then would symbolically be seen as a great honour. These ideas are less dramatic in the modern day, however they are still practiced.


It is said that an emperor under disguise once poured tea for a mere servant in order to demonstrate his appreciation for him. The servant was of course overwhelmed and wanted to show his gratitude by being bestowed such a great honour, however he could not kneel, as it would destroy the emperor’s disguise. As a result of this dilemma the servant bent his index finger, in a show of extreme appreciation. This custom can be seen replicated in China today. 


By Sarah Ali

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