According to ancient Chinese tradition, eight is an auspicious number. In dynastic China, ten was a number reserved for the Celestial Heaven whereas nine was restricted for usage by the emperor. This is evident even in the architecture of the Forbidden City, as the emperor and empress’ buildings are adorned with nine mythical and animal statues. Though the statues could be bestowed upon civilians (with degrees from one to eight), contingent upon one’s rank and noble actions. Today, phone numbers, license plates, and addresses with multiple digits of eight are considered the best. Weddings are frequently scheduled on days with numerous repetitions of the number eight, such as the eighth day of the eighth lunar month.
These are eight terms related to tea that are essential to learn to enjoy tea at one’s leisure while visiting a tea house in China.
品茶 pǐn chá – to sip or drink tea
Chinese characters are composed of radicals which may be phonetic or ideographic in nature. The first character contains three box radicals 品 which mean “mouth.” Many tea shop owners will enthusiastically describe why pǐn contains three boxes—ahem, mouths—since to sip tea is to taste with your three mouths: First, we observe the dry leaves with our eyes; second, we inhale the aroma of the steeped leaves with our nostrils; finally, may we employ our third mouth to savor the taste of the liquor itself.
茶杯 chábēi – tea cup
If you order a cup of tea at a tea house, don’t expect to be greeted with a super-sized cup. Instead, be pleasantly surprised when a cup a quarter of the size of your palm is presented. Chinese culture is largely communal – whether that’s sitting around a lazy susan and an acquaintance expresses their friendship by using their chopsticks to place a morsel of food into your rice bowl or how dozens of strangers will gather in public parks to dance at night, community is valued over individuality. By having a tiny teacup, you are an essential part of an environment in which your cup is constantly refilled by your host. Instead of stopping to smell the roses, you are now stopping to admire the tiny teacup.
盖碗 gàiwǎn – lidded bowl
A gaiwan is a lidded bowl which will infuse tea. In previous centuries, tea would be drunk directly from the gaiwan: A patron would hold the saucer in one hand and use the lid to brush back the tea leaves. This is a rather uncommon sight today in tea houses, where the gaiwan is more often used within the tea ceremony as an infuser. Hot water is inserted into the gaiwan, strained into a filter, and then poured into a pitcher. The three aspects of the gaiwan (the lid, the bowl, and the saucer) are often compared to represent the harmony of humanity: The lid represents the skies or heaven, the bowl serves the people, and the saucer is the grounding earth.
公道杯 gōngdào bēi – fairness pitcher
Gongdao can be translated to mean justice, fairness, reasonable, or just; among other words. Bei—as we’ve learned above—means cup or vessel. The fairness pitcher is so named because when water is poured into one from a gaiwan, the tea leaves and water from inside the gaiwan will be mixed properly. A filter placed atop of the fairness pitcher will prevent any stray leaves from entering the pitcher. The more concentrated water at the bottom of the gaiwan will come to the top of the pitcher and vice versa, ensuring an even brew. When tea is poured into the tea guests’ cups, they will all have a uniform taste of the same steeping of tea. In this way, all who gather to drink tea are united around the tea table.
茶布 chá bù – tea table runner
In dry steeping ceremonies, a rolling cloth (which is thin, albeit long) will rest beneath the teaware. These vary from a variety of types of material (canvas, cotton, bamboo) and design (plain, acrylic, embroidered). Most chá bù are simple in design, as they are the stage in which the teaware will rest. Many chá bù are singular in a natural color hue or will offer a simple design of simple strokes of bamboo grass wavering in the wind, blushing peonies, or echoes of landscape paintings.
茶盘 chápán – tea pan
Instead of a cloth runner, a tea pan can host the tea ceremony. A tea pan also goes by the monikors of tea boat, tea stage, and tea tray. Their function is similar but can invite the host to brew a wet steeping ceremony. While washing the tea utensils or in pouring out leftover tea, the water will be dumped directly onto the tea pan. It will naturally drain out or can be prompted to soak down by running a small brush down the side. There are two main types of drainage in tea pans: One – a tray will slide in and out of the bottom for deposit; Two – a hose will lead the water out (in this case, a bucket is often placed beneath the table).
茶宠 chá chǒng – tea pet
Instead of drinking tea alone, one can be accompanied by a tea pet. Present in both dry and wet steeping ceremonies, they serve no function except for aesthetics. Tea hosts will often select a tea pet of the zodiac animal of the year they were born. Alternatively, creatures both mythical and realistic as well as religious or historical figures can be constructed as tea pets. They absorb tea as it is poured over their bodies and will deepen in hue over time.
茶馆 cháguǎn – tea house
Tea houses, originally from Chengdu, foster a lively community. Bring a trail of friends and order a pot of tea so that you can spend hours as the locals do by chewing on sunflower seeds, sipping on tea, chatting, and playing card games. On the rare days when the sun exposes her head in Chengdu, you can expect a challenge to find an empty table outside any tea house.
Wait! Why isn’t “thank you” on this list? Fret not! When enjoying tea in China, there is no need to interrupt the natural rhythm of the ceremony by saying 谢谢 xièxiè (thank you). Instead, locals will curl two fingers and tap the table lightly when their cup is refilled to express appreciation.
You are now prepared to scout out your own tea house in China and sip tea. Why not explore different establishments and visit eight tea houses to see how culture can vary place to place.
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