In modern Chinese weddings, the tea ceremony remains one of the most significant traditions, where the newlyweds show their respect to the elders in their families, and they in turn show their acceptance of the marriage. In Chinese, the expression “drinking a daughter-in-law’s tea”—which references the tea ceremony—often represents a wedding, which goes to show just how important this tradition is to this day.
What Is the Chinese Tea Ceremony?
The Chinese tea ceremony is conducted on the day of the wedding and sees the bride and groom serve tea to their parents, in-laws, and other family members. Symbolizing the union of two families, it is a meaningful part of the day, typically taking place inside the couple’s respective family homes.
The couple, often dressed in traditional wedding garments (the qun kwa for the bride, in particular), will kneel before their elders and serve them tea, with the help of attendants (usually bridesmaids). The parents and in-laws are the key recipients, and sometimes other relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles will also take part.
The History and Meaning of the Tea Ceremony
The origins of the tea ceremony go as far back as the Tang dynasty in China (618-907). With tea being such a big part of Chinese culture, this is hardly a surprise, but there’s more to this elegant ceremony than just a love of the infusions. According to “Seven Revisions” by Chinese writer Ying Lang (1487-1566) documenting current affairs and happenings in society: “The tea plant cannot be transplanted, and after transplantation, it shall not live. When a woman marries and brings tea as part of her dowry, we see she is loyal to one.” From this passage, we get a glimpse of what tea used to symbolize in unions in those days: faithfulness from a woman to her betrothed.
Today, however, most people see the tea ceremony as a symbol of the families’ welcoming the bride or groom into the family. “Drinking that tea symbolizes the parents not only recognizing but also accepting the bride or groom as part of the family,” says Sharon Au. “This is especially so for the groom’s side of the family.” (As is the case with many Chinese wedding traditions, the groom’s family takes precedence over the bride’s.) It’s also an expression of gratitude from the couple’s part. “It means: ‘I am marrying into this family, I will show my respect by serving tea to the elders,’” adds Au.
Meet the Expert
Hong Kong-based Sharon Au established her eponymous wedding consultancy, providing professional dai kum jeh services, in 1993. The ancient role, literally “big aunt-sister” in Cantonese and dubbed “bridal chaperone” in English by Au, was once an indispensable part of southern Chinese weddings. Typically a woman, the dai kum jeh guides the bride in navigating through customs. In modern times, dai kum jeh also act as Chinese wedding consultants.
Tea Ceremony FAQs
Who attends the tea ceremony?
The couple, their parents, and close family members such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The bridal party is usually present, and bridesmaids often act as attendants—making the tea, handing over teacups to the couples for them to present to their relatives, washing the teaware. You can ask a relative to be an attendant, but Au says this can “sometimes be awkward” if they are also recipients of the tea.
When a dai kum jeh is hired, she handles this part while also saying auspicious expressions. You don’t need a dai kum jeh for this, though. It’d also be nice to have your attendants learn an auspicious expression or two to say for the ceremony.
Are there preferred types of tea? What goes in the tea?
There are no rules surrounding this and people choose based on personal preference, says Au. Red dates, lotus seeds, and lily are added to the tea; the first signifies luck, the second symbolizes the arrival of children, and the Chinese name of the lily flower rhymes with an expression meaning marriage longevity.
Who buys the teaware and cushions?
Traditionally, the bride’s family. Chinese-style teaware and cushions (for the couple to kneel comfortably on) are usually used, with the "double happiness" Chinese character—which symbolizes weddings—printed on them.
Where does the tea ceremony take place?
In Hong Kong, where the majority of weddings feature a blend of Chinese and western customs, the tea ceremony for the bride’s side is conducted at her family home in the morning, when tradition calls for the groom and his groomsmen to go and pick her up. It is then conducted for the groom’s family at his home if the day involves the couple going there. Doing this in one go, says Au, is “the best way.” But things are also flexible; if there is a lunch banquet, for example, you can also do the ceremony there.
For many Chinese couples, activities on their wedding day are centered around the “auspicious hour” for them to take place. The couple and their families select these based on the Chinese almanac, or consultations with Feng Shui specialists.
Does the couple have to kneel?
“Kneeling while serving the tea is part of the etiquette,” says Au. Some even kneel with their head touching the ground as a show of respect. There are couples who choose to only do so before their parents and in-laws and not for other relatives, which is something they will usually have a consensus with their families about. Others might choose to go without it altogether. It’s not entirely up to the couple, though. “If your mother-in-law wanted you to kneel, then you wouldn't want to say no to that,” says Au.
How long is the tea ceremony?
There is no set time for this, says Au. “Let's say there was a big family with 50 relatives participating, then you can't really rush it.”
Do the tea drinkers have to finish the tea in their cup?
This is not a requirement and there is no bad luck associated with this.
What happens after the tea ceremony?
Immediately following the ceremony, the parents will usually offer a few wise words to the couple and give them lai see—red envelopes containing cash, a symbol of luck and good fortune. After that, the groom’s parents will offer the bride gold jewelry, most notably “dragon and phoenix bangles,” a traditional wedding accessory. It’s important for the bride to “put these on right away,” advises Au. “Otherwise, it’s seen as rude, or as if she didn’t like them.”
How to Plan the Tea Ceremony
When planning a tea ceremony, speak to your families about who you want to include. Decide who you will want as attendants, as well as locations for the ceremony. Unlike some other Chinese wedding customs, which can be done on a different day, the tea ceremony will likely take place on the day. During the tea ceremony, the bride and groom should each face the relative of their gender (there are no rules about which side the couple needs to be on). The father of the groom is served by the groom, then by the bride. The mother of the groom is then served by the groom, then by the bride. The same order is followed for grandparents and other relatives. Address the family members you are serving tea to in kinship terms, and hand them the teacup with both hands. When serving, you must say, “[kinship term], please drink the tea.”
Handler-Spitz, R. 2017. Seeking Truth and Exposing Falsehood in Early Modern Prose Collections, or Seeing Faces in Pansies? Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 17(2), 82-110.