Mention the words “Chinese Tea Ceremony,” and many people start thinking of Gongfu tea. This is an association I dislike, since it insinuates that gongfu tea is a ceremonial, ritualistic event. This is a far cry from its beginnings in Chaozhou, where woodcutters would happily gongfu brew tea in the midst of their labor. How it became associated with a ‘ceremony’ is a story for another post.
In this post, I will talk about a tea ceremony that is not about tea. As a tea addict and tea vendor, the notion that anything is not about tea may seem somewhat sacrilegious. but not when it involves something that is even bigger: marriage.
The Tradition No One Wants to Abandon
A little more than 10 years ago when I had just graduated from university and entered the real world, one of the first friends I met was a ‘progressive, westernized’ woman. Educated and spending half a decade in Melbourne, she would often lament how life in Singapore proved stifling with its adherence to traditions and eastern cultures.
So when she was preparing for her wedding, I would have expected that she would do away with what she considered superfluous. This was all the more so since she was the, shall we say, “dominant” voice between the pair.
“So I suppose you will be doing away with the tea ceremony?” I suggested.
“You must be mad!” she retorted. I had no idea then why she responded with such vehemence, but I didn’t take the time to examine it.
The tea ceremony is an integral part of a traditional Chinese’s wedding. Even a few generations removed from our ancestors’ migration from China, I have not yet heard of any of my ethnic Chinese peers omitting the ritual at their weddings.
The inclusion of the ceremony is considered more important and ‘official’ than the formal signature at the Registrar of Marriage for us ethnic Chinese. In fact I have known of many couples in Singapore who were legally married but continued to live with their parents until the tea ceremony took place.
The tea ceremony is not about the beverage – more on that later – it signifies an acceptance into the spouse’s family as well as an expression of gratitude towards the bride and the groom’s parents for their upbringing. Much like how the father of the bride gives her away, the tea ceremony is like the turning point when the bride and the groom officially leave the purview of their parents and form their own family.
What Type of Tea is it?
In South East Asian context, the ‘tea’ in question is not Camellia sinensis– oh let the debate over semantics rage again!- but more accurately a herbal infusion, generally red dates and lotus seeds. The reason for this is two-fold: First is our fascination with homophones and children. Dates in Chinese is pronounced ‘zao’ which is the same sound as ‘early’, while seeds is pronounced as ‘zi’ which is a homophone for child. Put it together, and the bride and groom’s parents have scarcely managed to conceal their mandate for the newly minted couple. Second is that this infusion is sweet.
Tea, as in the ‘true’ tea, is mostly bittersweet which is an accurate depiction of life. However, on one’s wedding day how can everything be anything but sweet?
How is the Tea Served?
The tea ceremony- depending on the culture of the bride’s dialect group- would either take place first at the bride’s parents’ house or the groom’s parents’ house. The parents are served first, followed by the grandparents, and then other elders in order of seniority. Next, the unmarried siblings of the couple would serve them tea.
Traditionally, the serving of tea was done on one’s knees to signify respect to the elders. In a modern context, this has been replaced by a bow. As the couple serves tea to their families, they are to address them by their former titles- i.e. “3rd Grand-Uncle,” instead of “Joe” – and the recipient is expected to reciprocate the courtesy by drinking the tea and responding with a word of blessing. Thereafter. a second blessing is given in the form of either a red packet bearing a cash gift, or jewelry. After the family drinks the tea, it signifies acceptance of the bride or groom into the family.
Keeping the Tradition Alive
Weddings – and funerals – are the time when you discover family members that you never knew existed. The tea ceremony can swallow up huge chunks of the most important (so you thought) day of your life. Despite that, like my dear friend, I don’t think the tea ceremony is in danger of falling by the wayside anytime soon.
The cynic in me whispers that it is the gifts (have you looked at gold prices lately?) that drive the continued inclusion of the ceremony into weddings, but I would like to believe it is the act of honoring our parents.