In some modern Chinese weddings, the tea ceremony (where newlyweds show their respect to the elders in their families and they, in turn, show their acceptance of the marriage) remains one of the most significant traditions. 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. If you want to reflect your Chinese culture by hosting a tea ceremony at your wedding, it's important to understand the logistics to plan one during your nuptials.
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 origins of the tea ceremony go as far back as the Tang dynasty in China (618-907). Today, however, most people see the tea ceremony as a symbol of the families’ welcoming the bride or groom into the family. According to wedding consultant Sharon Au, drinking that tea symbolizes the parents not only recognizing but also accepting a new person into the family. She goes on to note that “this is especially so for the groom’s side of the family.” 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.
Ahead, Au breaks down everything couples should know when hosting a tea ceremony.
When planning a tea ceremony, speak to your families about who you want to include. In addition to your parents, your close family members, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles, can attend. The bridal party is usually present as well. Bridesmaids can serve as attendants—making the tea, handing over teacups to you to present to your relatives, and 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 could also be nice to have your attendants learn an auspicious expression or two to say for the ceremony.
What Tea to Serve
There are no rules surrounding the type of tea in the ceremony 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 Pays for the Event?
Traditionally, the bride’s family pays for the tea and décor. 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.
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 of the wedding day, 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.
What Occurs During the Ceremony
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.” There is no set time for this process. Says Au, “Let's say there was a big family with 50 relatives participating, then you can't really rush it.” It's not required, nor is it bad luck, for tea drinkers to not finish what's in their cup.
“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.
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.”