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During a recent e-meeting with fellow creative writers who have participated in international exchange programs, I was sipping a wulong tea and someone joked about how we should all just sit around with a cup in hand and “spill the tea” about the shenanigans of living abroad. I leaned forward and commented, “are you ready for a splash? I can spill some tea now, if you want.”

Spilling Tea in American Slang

Spilling the tea. The etymology of this phrase has its roots from an interview with The Lady Chablis, a renowned Black transgender club performer, actress, and author in Savannah, Georgia. Her interview was featured in John Berendt’s bestselling book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” (published in 1994) which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize the next year. 

According to Merriam Webster, The Lady Chablis “notes that she avoids certain men because they’re prone to violence when they ‘find out her T’: ‘Your T?’ [Berendt asked]. ‘Yeah, my T. My thing, my business, what’s goin’ on in my life.’ [Chablis said].”

“T” was originally an abbreviation for “truth” but would eventually be contextualized within two meanings: The truth (as in one’s lived experiences, identity, or secret) and to share gossip. Today, “spilling the tea” in American slang is the equivalent of other expressions such as “spilling the beans” or “let the cat out of the bag.” But does spilling tea have any context within the global culture or history of tea? Believe it or not, there is an unrelated tradition of tea poured out during gongfu tea ceremonies which well predates the American slang.

Dry steeping method of spilling tea

An empty table surrounded by cushions features a stage for a dry steeping method at the Beijing International Tea Festival in 2019.

Spilling Tea in Chinese Gongfu Tea Ceremony

In China, gongfu tea ceremonies are divided into two steeping categories: The dry steeping method (干泡法) and the wet steeping method (湿泡法). In gongfu tea ceremonies, there exists an intentional purpose to spill the tea – not once but thrice. 

Wet steeping method of spilling tea

A woman brews tea over a tea pan in the wet steeping method for a customer at the Beijing International Tea Festival in 2019.

First, hot water is placed within all of the teaware present to both warm the cups as well as indicate to the guests that the teaware is clean. Warming the cups allows the cups to absorb water before it is dumped out. This ensures that the cups are easier to hold; in the case of using a yixing teapot and/or cups, it will properly heat the material so that the risk of it overheating and cracking when tea is poured in is prevented. Representing cleanliness is an extension of welcoming guests into the tea ceremony.

When the tea is poured out, it can be into or upon a variety of vessels. In a dry steeping method ceremony, the disposable water can be poured into a separate bowl. Thus the name, as the tea runner (茶布) can remain dry throughout the ceremony. In the wet steeping method, the teaware is typically positioned over a tea pan (茶盘, sometimes translated as a tea boat). The excess water is poured over the tea pan (either to filter into a retractable drawer which can be dumped out once the ceremony concludes and guests have departed) or will trail out through a small hose into a bucket or container beneath the tea desk.

Second, once the tea leaves are awakened (often called ‘washing the leaves’), the tea liquor will follow the same evacuative process. For the dry steeping method, the wastewater will collect to the side within a bowl. In the wet steeping method, the waste will again be poured over the tea pan to sink below. In many cases, (a) tea pet(s) will adorn the tea pan and water will be poured over their heads. In this way, they will also absorb the water or tea and can sip tea alongside their human counterparts. Over time, these tea pets will darken in hue as tannins stain.

A dragon tea pet, requiring the spilling of tea

A dragon tea pet is in focus on top of a tea pan in a shop at Maliandao in Beijing, China. Summer 2018.

Finally, if tea has grown cold, it may also be poured out (ahem, “spilled”). Historically (and among 茶友 tea friends in China), cold tea is offensive. If the tea has grown cold, it is a sign that the tea guests ought to leave. Alternatively, if the conversation is so fluid that the tea has grown cold, the tea master will take the tea cup(s) in hand and pour out their contents so that they may be refilled with hot tea. Although bubble tea, cheese tea, and other forms of iced tea have been popularized in recent decades, cold tea is still considered improper within gongfu tea ceremonies, and as such, must be “spilled.”

From ancient gongfu traditions of pouring out tea to the Black drag and queer context of “spilling the T” which has entered into popular American slang, there are endless interpretations of how to “spill the tea.” Are you familiar with any other context in which tea is “spilled” intentionally? Let us know in the comments below.

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