Tea-ing Off

Serving tea as a form of respect is a traditional must at Chinese wedding ceremonies. Lawrence Tan checks out the bridal brew.

In the old days, tea was the drink of choice in China and Japan. Both cultures have developed around this humble infusion. So celebrated was its status, the British introduced it into England. Soon every genteel Englishman was sticking out his little pinkie as he sipped the hot beverage. A war was even waged in America over the sinking of an English mercantile ship carrying the sun-dried leaves. The incident came to be known as the Boston Tea Party.

In China, tea was believed to have digestive and anti-toxic qualities and litres of the drink were consumed daily. In fact, the lactose-intolerant Chinese never drank any other non-alcoholic drinks apart from tea. The fragrant drink was served to guests as a form of respect and during special festivities; tiny cups of tea were served to elders. The acceptance of the drink would symbolise forgiveness or acceptance of the individual serving the tea.

Hence even today, as part of the wedding ritual, a bride has to serve tea to her in-laws as a form of respect, a symbol of her readiness to be part of the family and a promise to obey them. Their sip of the offering is a sign of welcome, and the elders will then return the courtesy with a red packet filled with money for luck and prosperity.

According to Chinese wedding custom, the groom was not to see the bride nor have any physical contact with her. Therefore, in the past, a matchmaker or one of the groom’s aunts would be sent to pick up the bride in a sedan chair. When the bride arrived at the door, the groom would receive the bride and lead her into the main hall where the parents awaited. The couple would bow to the gods for blessings, then to the parents and finally to each other. Following that, the bride would serve tea to the groom’s parents who, on behalf of the rest of the family, would extend the welcome to the bride. Today, this tradition has evolved to create more pomp and fun to the entire affair.

Grooms, when picking up the bride, will serve tea to her parents and elders including her older brothers and sisters. When the couple arrives at the groom’s place, they will serve tea to his parents and senior family members. In the past, the groom did not serve tea on the wedding day as the bride was to have married into his family and the tea service is merely to receive her as a new family member. It was only on the third day after the wedding when the bride returned home for the customary visit when the groom would serve tea to his in-laws as a form of respect, but more importantly as thanks for bringing up his wife. Traditionally, the groom does not serve tea to anyone else in the bride’s family.

Usually a sweetened fragrant floral tea is served to bless the union with sweetness and happiness. For weddings, chrysanthemum, osmanthus or jasmine teas would be served. Latter day versions include perfumed variations such as bergamot (Earl Grey), lavender, orange blossoms and rose. The tea is sometimes sweetened with honey, an ingredient with healing properties and supposedly the ability to dispel evil.

So tightly woven is the drink into the cultural fabric of the Chinese people that an articulate tea ceremony has been designed to heighten the appreciation of the brew. Special clays such as kaolin have been used specially for the manufacturing of the dainty teapots and cups. It is believed that certain clays are able to elicit the special fragrance and flavour of the brew. The Chinese are particular about their tea and a certain teapot is used to serve only a particular type of tea so as to intensify the tea’s unique flavour and fragrance.

Due to such a practice, it is no wonder many Chinese collect teapot sets as a hobby. In fact, for weddings, new teapots and cups have to be used to signify a new beginning for the couple.