Introduction to Tea Ceremony

When most practitioners think about tea culture, they think about the word “Cha Dao (茶道).”  More specifically, when they think about tea culture pertaining to particular countries, they think of Chinese “tea art,” the Korean “tea ceremony,” and the Japanese “Chado.”

Both the Chinese and Japanese consider LuYu from the Tang Dynasty to be the saint of tea and the originator of Cha Dao.  However, the word “Cha Dao” never appeared in his book,  The Classic of Tea(茶经).  It is only said that tea is suitable for people who excel in moral behaviors and virtues (精行俭德).  Some people consider LuYu’s “精行俭德” to be the main part of Cha Dao, but LuYu did not present the concept of Cha Dao. The first mention of Cha Dao appeared in a poem written by the monk Jiaoran, a famous tea expert, poet, and LuYu’s best friend.  It is said that drinking the first cup of tea caused Jiaoran to awaken from worldly illusions; the second cleansed his spirit like the earth is cleansed by a spring rain; and the third cup led to enlightenment, obviating the need to consider freedom from pain and difficulties (一饮涤昏寐,情思朗爽满天地;再饮清我神,忽如飞雨洒轻尘;三饮便得道,何须苦心破烦恼).  This was the first mention of Cha Dao, which means enlightenment through tea.

The word “Cha Dao” has been used in many poems and essays since the Tang Dynasty.  In modern times, only Japan continues to use the word Cha Dao, which is the same as Chado, while China uses the phrase “tea art (茶艺)” and Korea uses the phrase “tea ceremony (茶礼).”  People often confuse the ideas of tea art, tea ceremony, and Cha Dao.  Most people say Chinese Cha Dao, Korean Cha Dao, and Japanese Cha Dao, but these terms are misleading.  So what is tea art?  What is a tea ceremony?  And what is Chado?  Why and how does the approach to tea differ in these three countries?

Tea Art and Tea Ceremony in China

A Chinese proverb states that the first seven things that are essential each day are firewood, rice, oil, salt, catsup, vinegar, and tea (开门七件事,柴米油盐酱醋茶).  This proverb tells us that tea is an indispensable part of Chinese life.  The Chinese have an inveterate habit of drinking tea.  Although there are many alternatives to tea, including soda, cola, and coffee, most people prefer tea.  For most Chinese people, other drinks can be an occasional alternative, but are not for daily drinking.  Tea still occupies a special position, which is why the majority of Chinese tea is consumed by the Chinese.  China is the biggest producer of tea in the world, but it exports much less than it consumes.  In many Chinese cities, all kinds of tea houses are found.

In my opinion, China’s tea houses reflect the folksy tea culture of China.  During its long history of development, Chinese tea culture has had four lines: royal, literati, religious, and folksy.  Only the folksy tea culture is currently strong.  For most common people, tea is the best thirst reliever, and this is the main function of tea.  The Big Bowl Tea (大碗茶) in Beijing and the Cover Bowl Tea (盖碗茶) in Chengdu are good examples.  The tea leaves are cheap, and plebeians can finish a large bowl of tea in one mouthful.  They come to tea houses to experience interpersonal communication, and not the refinement of tea.  That is why most tea houses are noisy, with loud chatting, poker, snacks, fast food, and other forms of entertainment.  In some places, such as Suzhou, Beijing, and Chengdu, tea houses also play an important role for operas and storytellers.

However, not all tea houses are noisy.  “Pure tea houses (清茶馆)” are increasingly quiet and elegant.  They usually price tea extremely high and are accepted by businessmen, officials, and white-collar workers.

In both pure tea houses and common tea houses, women and men perform the Chinese tea art ceremony for customers.  Currently, people usually do not differentiate between the concepts of tea art and Cha Dao.  We tend to regard an emphasis on the spirit of self-reflection as Cha Dao, while an emphasis on tea, tea-making, the beauty of tea color, fragrance and atmosphere, and the refinement of water is considered to be tea art.  Surely, the satisfaction of Cha Dao is attained through tea art, but tea art alone is not Cha Dao.  Thus, in the opinion of the Chinese, tea art is easily accessible, but people should stand in awe of Cha Dao because it might be difficult or impossible to obtain.  Thus, women in tea houses perform the tea art ceremony, while tea people never perform Cha Dao in China.

For tea art, good water, suitable tea apparatuses, a full understanding of the characteristics of all types of tea, water temperature, various tea-making skills for different kinds of tea, location, and time are all important factors.  Different types of tea art ceremonies exist.  Kungfu (工夫) tea ceremonies are often performed in pure tea houses, while long-spout kettle tea art is often found in Cover Bowl Tea houses.  Kungfu tea is the most representative tea art ceremony in China.  Kungfu means sophisticated and adept skills. 

Oolong tea is normally used as Kungfu tea.  In my observations, Puer, black tea, and dark tea are also suitable for Kungfu tea.  Long-spout kettle (长嘴壶) tea art is popular in Sichuan.  It is used in tea houses bustling with noise and excitement, where the tea doctor in charge of cooking tea pours tea from a long-spout kettle high and far away from the tea cup.  Green tea and flower-scented tea are suitable for long-spout kettle tea art. Chinese tea art has a strong relation with plebeians’ daily life, and it is performed daily in every tea house in China.

Korean Tea Ceremony

Korean Chadao usually refers to the Korean tea ceremony. The Korean tea ceremony has two parts – the rite ceremony (仪式茶礼) and the life ceremony (生活茶礼). The rite ceremony is the tea ceremony for a rite of passage, while the life ceremony refers to tea etiquette in daily life.

The rite ceremony is similar to ancient sacrificial rites. The most famous tea rite ceremony is the “five elements of tea ceremony” (五行茶礼), a national event in memory of the saint of tea, Shen Nong. The ceremony involves as many as 50 people, who observe a serious and orderly admission order. The five elements of tea ceremony represents Eastern philosophy and include:

  1. The five elements of the tea ceremony: to serve tea, to get tea, to drink tea, to taste tea, and to have happiness
  2. The five directions: north, south, east, west, and middle
  3. The five colors: yellow, cyan, red, white, and black
  4. The five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty
  5. The five colors of tea: yellow tea, green tea, black tea, white tea, and dark tea
  6. The five elements: gold, wood, water, fire, and earth
  7. The five permanents: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and credit

The main processes of the rite include the entrance, a sword show, serving candles, incenses, vases, and flowers, preparing tea, serving tea, and a final funeral oration reading.

The life ceremony is tea etiquette in daily life. It is similar to Chinese tea art and includes greeting, warming tea sets, making tea, and tasting tea.

The Korean tea ceremony has its own tea spirit; that is, it is characterized by kindness, reverence, thrift, sincerity (和,敬,俭,真), an emphasis on etiquette, care for the relationships between people and between ancestors and living people, and an emphasis on loyalty to ancestors. All of these characteristics are strongly related to Confucianism. The Korean tea ceremony is mostly based on Confucianism.

Japanese Tea Ceremony – Chado

The Japanese word Chado is similar to the Chinese word Cha Dao. In fact, given their history and contemporary meaning, the two words are essentially the same.
Chado is usually translated into English as the “Japanese tea ceremony.” However, this is not accurate because the English word “ceremony” contains no reference to the word Dao. Some people translate Cha Dao as the “way of tea.” This seems to be more accurate because Dao can mean “way” or “path.” However, Cha Dao not only refers to making or drinking tea, but also to looking for and finding one’s real self. According to Jiaoran’s poem, Cha Dao is enlightenment through tea. Thus, “ceremony” or “way” does not represent Dao, in my opinion. Therefore, I have chosen to use the words Cha Dao and Chado.

Based on its meaning, Chado is not necessarily related to tea art, the tea ceremony, the quality of tea, or the vessels. This can be strongly supported by a story. It is said that one Japanese tea master had a disciple who had only a wine-warming pot. This was not a good tea apparatus, but nevertheless he used this pot to cook rice and make tea. Regardless, he was praised by the tea master, who said he had a clean heart. 

The guiding philosophy of Japanese Chado rests on harmony, respect, purity, and serenity (和敬清寂). “A unique meet for never (一期一会)” is another philosophy of Japanese Chado, which means that each cup of tea is unique – there will ever be another cup of tea just like the one you are drinking because of differences in teas, the drinking atmosphere, and the people in one’s life. Thus, one should try to make good tea and treat guests well each and every time; guests should recognize the preciousness of each meeting and attend it with the knowledge that it will never be repeated. Applying the philosophy of “a unique meet for never” to daily life encourages living in the present. The third philosophy of Japanese Chado is “sitting alone and observing the thought.” After guests leave, the host sits alone, observing the tea pot and thinking about the tea meeting that will never be repeated. This is the feeling of “without.” Thus, Chado has been strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, and its core philosophy is Zen.

The Japanese tea ceremony is the way in which Japanese Chado is expressed. Similar to the Chinese tea art ceremony and the Korean tea etiquette ceremony, the Japanese tea ceremony also includes greeting, preparing to make tea, making tea, and tasting tea. However, creating an atmosphere of tranquility and calm is the most important aspect of the Japanese tea ceremony. The tea room is usually small, with a typical floor size of 4-1/2 tatami. The smallest tea room can be as small as one and a half tatami, and this helps guests to take care of one another. Guests must obey the rules, such as remaining silent while the host prepares the tea. Another difference is that matcha is prepared and served in Japanese ceremonies, while loose-leaf tea is used in Chinese and Korean ceremonies.

The Japanese tea ceremony has become popular. However, in my opinion, the modern Japanese tea ceremony is not in the spirit of Chado because it heavily emphasizes form and rules while tending to be showy and more entertainment based. This is why the Japanese tea ceremony and Japanese Chado must be differentiated.


This article has been reformatted from the original publication date, April 20, 2012.